Cloud Gate, Taiwan’s pioneering, much-loved contemporary dance company, is in a moment of transition; its founder Lin Hwai-Min has handed over the reins to Cheng Tsung-Lung, and this double bill provided a chance to see work by both men. Although starkly different in theme and intention, both 13 Tongues and Dust showcased the company’s unique blend of movement, drawn from classical and modern traditions, from Chinese folk and Chinese opera, and from martial arts and meditation.
Cheng’s 13 Tongues was inspired, we’re told, by memories of the temples and religious rites that fill the oldest district of Taipei, and the storytelling skills of a renowned street artist. It was an often bewildering hour of swirling motion as 11 black-clad dancers bustled, scuttled, staggered, stomped, laughed, shouted, screamed and chanted, to a score that mixed folk tunes, rhythmic electronica, minor chord piano and warped strings.
Waves of movement caught up the dancers, who travelled around the stage with fluid grace, sometimes galvanised into synchronicity – huddling together, or forming a snake-like line – sometimes all caught up in individual preoccupations. Solo interludes punctuated the maelstrom, with the other dancers forming a curious crowd of onlookers.
Abstract swirls of colour appeared on the back wall as one dancer donned a vibrantly coloured gown, its fluorescence picked out by ultraviolet light – she was raised up and carried effortlessly, like a deity appearing to fly. Projections of an enormous koi carp flitted across the wall, then scrolling text in an frantic, rough-style calligraphy, whose energy the dancers absorbed into their movement.
By the time all 11 were decked out in acid-coloured costumes, everything had become incredibly trippy. 13 Tongues was a sensory overload, like a child’s-eye view of a seething street scene or festival, where nothing quite makes sense – but it was underpinned by a scything precision and an innate elegance.
Lin’s Dust was created as a response to Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 8, itself composed as a response to the Dresden bombing. The 20 dancers, a symphony in grey courtesy of Ma Ke’s costumes, appeared slowly, slump-shouldered, zombie-like, their faces turned up, uncomprehending victims of some unidentified catastrophe.
As smoke started to billow from the wings and the pace of the music picked up, a shiver of panic ran through them, one shuddering as though electrocuted. A wave-like motion sent the crowd into repeated rippling back-bends, taking the force of shockwaves. Bodies arced from side to side; grasping hands lost hold of those falling; faces contorted in silent screams. Most memorably, the dancers sank into a heap together, like bodies in a mass grave, then rose from their waists in rows of five, bending forwards and layering themselves over each other.
The choreography was a devastating, beautiful visual correlation to Shostakovich’s music – my only caveat would be that amorphous suffering with no resolution felt draining without offering catharsis.