Formosa means beautiful, and is how Portuguese sailors described the island of Taiwan when they reached it in the sixteenth century. It is the title of the latest work by Lin Hwai-Min, his final creation before retiring as Artistic Director of the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, the company he created back in the 1970s. Together with dance he has used the spoken narration of poems, which are translated in the programme and projected as surtitles, to sketch the people and the seasons, in an unsentimental and clear eyed way. It isn’t a paradise here: there are traffic jams, two hundred days of rain a year in one region, and we see vivid conflict between opposing groups. But amid the turbulence there are evocations of its beauty too.
It’s interesting that he doesn’t choose to deploy any visual images of the island to underline his point until the final images of the sea pounding the shore. The work begins with a bare white stage. The backdrop and sometimes the floor are then populated by drifting streams of Chinese characters, black or grey on white. The programme tells us that these include place names from the island, but for those of us who can’t read them, they still have an abstract beauty, sometimes expanded to massive proportions as if to crush the dancers scurrying below.
The cast of twenty-two, including slightly more women than men, are clad mostly in casual t-shirts and trousers in pale pastels. You might see these clothes any day now in the street, but they could also be something much more ancient. Years of work have honed the dancers into an ideal unit to express Lin Hwai-Min’s distinctive language, which merges contemporary dance with anything from martial arts to meditation. They are relentlessly pulled down by gravity to roll and slide across the floor, but are instantly alert to spring upwards into twisting leaps. It is a mix between the calmly contemplative, long poses on one foot with the other leg pointing upwards showing fine control, and the fiercely combative. The women are strong and resilient, no waifs here.
Dancers slap and stomp on the floor to stake out territory. We can clearly hear their rhythmic breathing. All this weaves itself into the soundtrack of the spoken recitation, with music from an eclectic ranges of sources including Kaija Saariaho alongside songs of indigenous Taiwanese tribes from Sangpuy Katatepan Mavaliyw.
There are striking vignettes. The poet speaks of spring in the paddy fields and his loved one like a white egret, as a man observes a woman in a long white dress. The music here sounded like a plaintive bamboo flute. There is a delicate, liquid interaction between the performers, but she slips away, never to return. Monsoon rains are invoked, and crowds of dancers hurtle across the stage as if looking for shelter. The massed ranks of the dancers might be traversing crowded city streets.
Lin Hwai-Min is particularly deft at depicting rising tension between groups and how it builds into confrontation and conflict. Dancers rush about with sudden twists and turns of direction like shoals of fish or birds, coalescing in sculptural groups. Opposing groups stomp and taunt, gearing themselves up for a fight. The combat is a swirling mass of interlocked bodies. The Chinese characters on the backdrop now begin to crumble and fall to the ground like leaves, a society literally disintegrating. Recovery is slow and painful. What look like stars begin to appear on the backdrop as the dancers slowly pull themselves up. But though they glow they aren’t stars: eventually they grow in size to be new Chinese characters, perhaps new communities growing to replace the old.
Though there are a number of solos, the dancers feel like a very cohesive unit and it would be unfair to pick out any of the twenty-two performers for special distinction. It is an impressive collective commitment. The work runs for seventy minutes without an interval and never overstays its welcome. It’s a very intricately constructed piece and you are likely to get more out of it if you have the time to read and absorb the text beforehand.
Cloud Gate have been popular visitors to Sadler’s Wells in the past with productions such as Songs of the Wanderers (with its waterfall of falling grain) and Rice. There was a particularly warm welcome for Lin Hwai-Min at the curtain all here, for someone who has done so much to establish the art form in his country. Though he is retiring as Artistic Director, let’s hope he has not said goodbye to choreography, and that there will be more works to come.