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Cloud Gate Dance Theatre

'Cursive III'

by David Mead

November 21, 2005 -- National Theatre, Taipei

“Cursive III” is the final part of Lin Hwai-min’s trilogy of works taking their inspiration from calligraphy and martial arts.

In 2001, “Cursive” continued his exploration of the possibilities of using tai chi dao yin and martial arts begun with “Moon Water” the previous year, the choreography coming out of improvisations by the dancers done while facing blown up images of calligraphy. This focused on the dark shades of ink whereas its 2003 sequel, “Cursive II”, explored the lighter shades and was more medative. In “Cursive III”, Lin draws his inspiration from kuang chao (wild calligraphy), considered the pinnacle of Chinese cursive aesthetics and in which all the rules are broken and the characters freed from any set form.

The work is danced against a set conceived by Lin himself. It consists only of a series of special one metre-wide rice paper banners that are raised and lowered at various times. Black ink seeps into the paper from hidden pipes above, which then slowly runs through it towards the floor creating abstract patterns as the dance unfolds. How it flows and what patterns are made is completely down to chance. The banners can only be used once, effectively meaning that a new set is created for each performance.

The curtain rises to reveal a group of dancers already in motion, dancing as if using their bodies as calligraphy brushes, but this is untamed calligraphy, abstract and as if the writer is drunk. Think of tai chi done extremely fast and you will have some idea. Slowly they part into two groups. The whole process looks completely improvised but you soon realise that there are instants of unison. Suddenly, and with amazing control, a group will freeze, making a sort of sculptural pose, before speeding off again.

This opening is in silence but Jim Shum’s and Liang Chun-mei’s soundscape of mostly natural sounds soon kicks in. At first we hear what sounds like noisy insects at night, then a bird, and then more birds, as if nature is waking up to a new day. Next comes the wind, getting stronger and seemingly blowing the dancers to and fro across the stage. Each dancer has their own movement. They are different yet somehow clearly connected, the point being emphasised with occasional moments of unison.

One of the highlights of ‘Cursive III’ comes right in the middle, a spellbinding, sometimes fast, sometimes slow but always incredibly controlled and graceful solo by Lee Ching-chun. During this we hear what sounds like a horn, and see Lee as if pushing the sound away with her outstretched hands. This is danced against a random grouping of banners, which combined with Chang Tsan-tao’s stunning golden lighting, make a series of angular geometric lines and shapes of different shades on the floor.

Another section opens to the sound of slowly dripping water and Chiu I-wen apparently washing her hands, equally slowly, in a square of light, before climbing in the bath as it were. This part has five banners diagonally across the stage, through which we see other dancers in shadow, only occasionally appearing each side before retreating behind them once more.

Although we sometimes hear the sound of feet stamping on the floor, voice is only used once, in a strong martial arts-based solo danced by Wen Ching-ching. Even then it is really only a powerful exhaling of breath, as using high energy and intensity, she powers her way through it.

The opening may have been good, but Lin certainly shows us how to end a piece. For the first time we a see a group of bodies moving closely together as one. Then a second group, this time to what sounds like wave gently breaking on a beach, the dancers ebbing and flowing through each other just like the water. There is a seething mass of arms and bodies, everything and every part of every body seemingly spiraling, twisting, and turning, constantly on the move, all with the same feeling and in the same dynamic. Then suddenly Lin surprises us as individuals break out. Finally, everyone ebbs away for the last time, leaving one solitary figure dancing in silence. Quite, quite beautiful.

“Cursive III” may be in 12 sections but each always flows seamlessly into the next. There is also a separateness yet a togetherness in the movement itself. Each dancer is a soloist yet part of something greater. Interestingly there is no contact between dancers and no lifting in the whole piece. The fact that the choreography is gender neutral and that everyone is costumed in the same black flowing trousers, the men bare on top, the women in black leotards, somehow simply adds to the feeling of a whole.

It is a stunning piece of choreography danced by a truly powerful group of dancers, who can move incredibly fast or slow, yet always with such strength, fluidity and control. At times you can almost feel and see the energy on the stage. There is a certain amount of improvisation, but their timing and togetherness was amazing, done at least in part, I assume, through breath, a great awareness and sensitivity to each other, and the ability to think fast. The choreography always surprises, whether it is sudden freezing of positions changes from vary fast to very slow movement. The 75 minutes or so simply flew past, even at a second showing a couple of nights later – and I still find myself wanting to see it again.

Cloud Gate are performing the whole trilogy at next February’s Hong Kong Arts Festival, and possibly in Berlin later in the year. If parts I and II are anything like this, and you are anywhere nearby, don’t miss them.

For those readers in England, Lin Hwai-min is working with Sylvie Guillem and Akram Khan on a new piece due to be shown at Sadler’s Wells next September.

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