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Cloud Gate Dance Theatre

'The Tale of the White Serpent' and excerpts

by David Mead

December 10, 2006 -- National Theatre, Taipei

After the very different Cloud Gate seen in Lin Hwai-min and Cai Guo-Qiang’s “Wind Shadow”, the second programme of the company’s Taipei season took most of the audience on something of a trip down memory lane with a series dances and excerpts from longer works going back to 1974.

Opening the show was “Milky Way” from 1979. It is an extremely colourful piece; the men with painted faces, and the women in traditional Chinese dress that owes much to traditional Chinese dance. Essentially it is a work about patterns and the dancers carried it off well.

“The Tale of the White Serpent” (1974) has now had over 400 performances and remains one of the company’s best-loved works in Taiwan. It is a tale of the love between human and spirit and of betrayal and regret. It retells an old Chinese story of a young man seduced by a white snake, accompanied by a green one, who take on a human form. When the truth about the snake and her intentions is revealed, the man is saved by a Buddhist monk. The work successfully brings together the Chinese story and Chinese and Graham dance technique. All too often such fusing results in an unsatisfactory outcome, but Lin manages to bring them together as one. Several times the green snake falls to the floor Graham-like, then repeatedly rolls in a circle in a movement common in Chinese theatre-dance. Both Chou Chang-ning (White snake) and Chiu I-wen (Green snake) excelled in their slipperiness.

Homage to the God of the Clouds is a spectacular section from “Nine Songs”, made in 1993. In it, the masked god dances throughout on the shoulder of two supporters, sometimes being held by both, sometimes balancing only on one. At times it seems as if he is almost striding through the air, much of the movement again seemingly Chinese-opera based. It was quite an amazing show of strength and control from Wu I-fang (now a successful choreographer in his own right, but who returned to Cloud Gate for this programme) and Sung Chao-chiun and Wang Chih-hao as the two carriers. It’s not all serious though. The excerpt also features a dancer in modern dress on roller skates carrying a white flag. It brought back memories of some of the old, large-scale communist dance dramas, perhaps showing once more how Lin is able to link the past and the present.

The highlight of the first half, though, was undoubtedly “Requiem” (1989). This was originally made as a reaction to the Tiananmen Square massacre. In Taiwan today it has more immediate significance as it was one of the signature roles of former and much loved Cloud Gate dancer Lo Man-Fei, who died of cancer earlier this year. The work requires a dancer (here Dung Shu-fen, also returning specially for the programme) with incredible stamina, balance and equilibrium as it presents us with a woman in grief who spins for over 10 minutes. Only once is there a brief respite and do we see her face. So simple, yet so effective and so spellbinding.

No Cloud Gate retrospective programme would be complete without at least one section from “Legacy”, made in 1978 and regarded by many as Lin’s and the company’s signature work. “Legacy” honours the pioneers who settled in Taiwan, and “Crossing the Black Water” tells of the dangerous crossing of what is now known as the Taiwan Strait. We see dancers being tossed around on the sea, created with a simple large white sheet that constantly billows as the storm waves rage and threaten those on board, who are thrown around and even overboard. As with so much of Lin’s work, it is such a simple device yet so, so effective.

The excerpts that made up the second half of the programme showed the change in the company’s style from the mid-1990’s. Sadly but hardly surprisingly, the excerpts from “Moon Water” (1998), did not feature any water. Now we saw the results of Lin’s interest in ‘tai qi dao yin’ as a choreographic tool. This is the Cloud Gate we know today and the style that has become so famous around the world. The excepts shown feature two duets by Sung Chao-chiun and Yang I-chun, and Wang Chih-hao and Wen Ching-ching. Both couples dance wonderfully in harmony with each others as their bodies seemed to ebb and flow with some imaginary tide. Even better though was the superb solo by Huang Pei-hua, whose movement was sometimes similar and sometimes much more powerful and dynamic. The work also features mirrors that Lin uses to reflect images of the dancers’ back at the audience, and we were treated to one mirror, or at least most of us were. I would love to tell you that it worked but I seem fated to always be sitting in a seat where I can’t see the reflections.

For the finale, a group section from “Cursive II” (2003), which celebrates the elegance of calligraphy and the power of emptiness, brought us almost up to date. Again, we see dancers moving individually yet with such fine quality and with an undoubted connection between them.

On paper it was a wonderful programme showing Lin’s work over thirty years and perhaps reflecting the changing nature of Taiwanese society and identity as well as his movement vocabulary. Yet at the same time it highlighted one of the problems with such ‘bits and pieces’ evenings, namely, that excerpts do not always work out of context. Probably for the first time, a Cloud Gate performance left me strangely unsatisfied. The dancers were excellent and there were some wonderful images. I had seen sections from works I have previously found fulfilling and some interesting choreography that was new to me, but I felt a bit like I had been served up a few appetizers and was still waiting for the main course.

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