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Cloud Gate Dance Theatre

'Nine Songs'

by David Mead

September 15 & 21, 2012 -- National Theater, Taipei

Lin Hwai-min has said twice that “Nine Songs” would never be returning, first in 2001, then again in 2007. When almost all the costumes and sets were destroyed in the fire at the company studios in 2008, it really did seem that maybe that was it. But this Cloud Gate classic refused to die. The sets, costumes and soundtrack have been recreated. Like a phoenix rising it is reborn, and many hurrahs for that.

“Nine Songs” is a cycle of poems written by Qu Yuang some 2,300 years ago. It’s considered a pinnacle of Chinese literature. Drawing on the ancient imagery and sensibilities therein, and Taiwan’s sometimes turbulent history, Lin Hwai-min’s work is a journey through life and death that brings together distant and recent pasts. A shaman calls up the Gods, who enact otherworldly rites to music from India, Tibet, Java, Japan, and the indigenous tribes of Taiwan. Always, though, there are reminders that we are not in one time, and that the past and present inform each other. The ancient images are interspersed and interrupted by people in modern dress. A Magritte-like bowler-hatted and dark suited traveller carrying a suitcase frequently passes through scenes. Later, men and women on bicycles dash through the crowds, and there’s a man on roller-skates; all, maybe, metaphors for ourselves.

“Nine Songs” is packed with arresting images, but it’s beautiful even before the curtain rises. Ripples of light and sound come from a lotus pond that stretches the whole width of the forestage. For those near the stage in this Taipei season, an extra bonus was the smell, for these were real flowers. Once the piece starts, the stage appears in all its glory. Designer Ming Cho Lee treats the audience to a golden scene of giant lotus flowers, actually detail derived from Lin Yu-san’s “Lotus Pond” painting, that fills the side flats, ceiling and back panels. Those same panels later open to reveal a blackness, an enormous golden moon and, for the finale, a star-filled sky.

The first half moves from day to night. It begins with what appears to be a calm, religious ceremony, the cast all in white robes. The peace is soon shattered, though, by the arrival of a shaman, the paleness of her skin accentuated by her bright red dress. Her presence unsettles all around her. Her dance is trance-like. Both Huang Pei-hua and Ko Wan-chun were excellent in the role. Huang was particularly mesmerising as her body shuddered and rocked most violently, her body arcing back and forth in percussive movements.

Eventually, the set opens and the powerful Sun God appears. His dance with the shaman is aggressive, confrontational, and contrasts sharply with the surrounding beauty. Later we meet the Gods of Fate who bring darkness, deceit and abuse to the world. One dance fills the stage with writing bodies as if portending suffering to come.

The second half follows the seasons. Again, the opening is calm. Spring arrives with the Goddess of the Xiang River waiting for her lover. Against a deep blue sky and a huge full moon, the ethereal deity is carried on stage standing motionless on two bamboo poles, trailing the longest of long white veils. As ever, though, there is a sense that all is not well. Sure enough, her dress and her waiting is in vain, and she becomes a symbol for wasted youth.

The highlight of “Nine Songs” for most audiences is the appearance of the God of the Clouds, who represents summer. It often seems everyone remembers Wu I-fang, who created the role in the original production and reprised it five years ago, as the loin-clothed, shoulder-borne deity. For all of the eight minutes the god is on stage, he never once touches the ground, instead shifting his feet from one man’s shoulder to another, sometimes posing in incredible balances. Almost as precarious is the way a flag bearer on roller-skates who constantly passes through the scene exits in arabesque, presaging the exit of the god himself. Yeh Wen-pang and Chen Wei-an were both quite admirable as the God, displaying startling balance, core strength and incredible trust in their two bearers.

Autumn sees the green Mountain Spirit wandering alone, his mouth often wide open in a silent scream, as if foretelling an impending catastrophe. Sure enough, winter brings death and destruction. Now Lin moves to the recent past. He shows us protestors scurrying and people being fired upon. Headlights appear upstage. In a clear reference to the Tiananmen Square incident in Beijing, a man blocks the lights, his arms out in protest. He falls, but is caught by the shaman who takes him to the pond and bathes his wounds. All this is to drumming, composed by Ju Tzong-ching and played by Taiwan’s Ju Percussion Group, that seems to push the dancers ever forward. It is stark, blunt, leaves little to the imagination, but is intensely effective.

The most affecting scene has dancers entering in slow single file, wicker baskets over their heads, hands crossed in front of them as if tied. This is the way prisoners were led to execution during Japan’s occupation of Taiwan in the first half of the twentieth-century. A heavy voice begins a methodical recitation of names, real heroes and ordinary people who died under the Japanese and who were executed following the 228 Incident, a 1947 clash between local Taiwanese and newly arrived Chinese Nationalist government forces that resulted in an estimated 20,000 deaths.

Don’t think for a moment you need a deep knowledge of Taiwanese history to comprehend events. Sure, it adds an extra dimension, but the scenes equally well come across as examples of general human suffering and oppression.

All that dramatic action makes the final section, Homage to the Fallen, even more stunning, both visually and emotionally. Against the sound of a ritual song from the Tsou tribe of Taiwan, and in with which snatches of bird song can be heard, the dancers slowly place hundreds of candles on the stage, creating a river of light. When the back flats are raised it seems to stretch for ever. It’s a beautiful final sight to take away.

“Nine Songs” is a captivating ninety minutes or so of richly diverse, often startling, images that make you think. Far from talk of the work being retired, overseas performances are now being scheduled. It will be staged in Moscow in 2013 and London in early 2014, the latter also to include a major new production; and many cheers for that, too.

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