National Theater, Taipei; April 19, 2019
National Theater, Taichung; April 28, 2019
At the end of this year, Cheng Tsung-lung (鄭宗龍), presently artistic director of Cloud Gate 2 (雲門2), will succeed Lin Hwai-min (林懷民) at Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (雲門舞集). Changing times. And it is change, or at least the fearful anticipation of change, that is very much at the heart of Cheng’s latest work, 22° Lunar Halo (毛月亮). It’s a work full of metaphor but easy to place in the context of the modern world, a place where people are restless, have become greedy for material pleasures, and that is fast approaching the edge.
The title comes from the fact that a lunar halo appears when moonlight is refracted by 22 degrees through millions of ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere. In many ancient civilisations, it was a sign of imminent change, most commonly in the weather (for which there is a scientific basis), although for some it brought a greater sense of foreboding.
And a dark, forbidding place is where Cheng takes us. After a first sight of a dancer utterly still and so strongly arched backwards you wonder if he’s going to break, the opening dance features an ensemble of men. In close formation with arms linked and moving as one, they look like some multi-limbed, multi-headed, plated monster. Like the rest of the work, they have strength and beauty as they shift.
Things ramp up several notches when the women arrive, bathed in red light, hair flying around totally obscuring faces. The touch paper is truly lit when one of the men reaches up to a giant LED screen, causing it to bursts into blue-green flame. Released, the dancers’ energy courses through the theatre.
The music by Icelandic avant-garde band Sigur Ros, directed by Kjartan Holm, gives everything added impetus. With its serene moments of calm among the ominous sounds, it has the same dark, hazy beauty as Cheng’s choreography. It’s a perfect match.
Almost immediately there is a sense of civilisation falling apart. The dance is fierce, strong and often has a ritual, tribal feel. One group scene resembles a Bacchanalian rave, full of carnal desire. But it’s not long before we see signs of things starting to break down. Fights appear. The dancers move in a circle, as if on the edge of the digital black hole on the screen above that is about to swallow them up. The group circles one man, perhaps someone who dared to question.
Visual designer Jam Wu’s (吳耿禎) screens and Ethan Wang’s (王奕盛) projections are totally integral. Later, in a pause for breath, the original mirrored screen features a group of naked dancers shifting apprehensively as if watching the brewing storm. The figures are cleverly multiplied as if we are looking at several angled mirrors.
Even better is a giant screen the full height of the stage on which is pictured the naked image of Cloud Gate 2 founding dancer Yeh Po-sheng (葉博聖). Like a Greek god, he looks down on the figures below, an image magnified as a line of them approach with reverence. Later the same screen shows a hieroglyph or an ancient cave painting, which sparks the dance to become its most frantic, hair and limbs twisting and flying in all directions.
A third panel showing a row of raised hands that also flashes violently malfunctioned in Taipei, but so strong is Lee Tzu-chun’s (李姿君) solo that it didn’t matter. Indeed, when I did see the piece with the panel working, I found it distracting and preferred it without.
A special mention too for Shen Po-hung’s (沈柏宏) sparse lighting and Chen Shao-yen’s (陳劭彥) costumes, each dancer in a unique dark-coloured, fringed, multi-layered skirt or pants (or both) that flew as they moved.
Yet however much Cheng asks his dancers to twist and turn into seemingly awkward positions, the human bodies on stage remain startlingly beautiful. That’s especially so in the other solos and duets that punctuate the ensemble dance. Change can be a frightening prospect and it’s here that we really see the anxiety.
An early duet sees Su I-chieh (蘇怡潔) and Huang Yung-huai (黃詠淮) twisting and turning fluidly around each other. One by Tsou Ying-lin (鄒瑩霖), dressed in just a flesh-coloured leotard, and for once with hair tightly back, is full of ungainly isolations. As she casts her eyes into the darkness, limbs twist into strange places, flopping as if someone has taken a pair of scissors to her strings. You feel she’s right on the edge and it’s only a matter of time before she collapses
Another spotlight moment for a woman comes with a super solo for Liao Chin-ting (廖錦婷). The men are not forgotten. There are more hyperactive limbs in a solo from Lin Shih-ping (林士評) before, right at the end and with the ensemble crushed beneath the first screen, amid smoke and lit by a single light and to a haunting song in the soundtrack, Lee Ying-ying (李尹櫻) performs a dance of rare beauty. Out of the darkness comes light. Together with film of a waterfall on the large vertical screen, she prompts a sense of peace, a new dawn, rebirth, that whatever change may bring, however we much we may fear it, there is always hope.
Watching 22° Lunar Halo, it’s impossible not to think of the forthcoming change at Cloud Gate. Anyone in any company facing a change of director after almost five decades is fully entitled to be at least a little apprehensive. Perhaps there’s a sense of that in the work too. Audiences who have grown up with Lin are probably also wondering what the future holds. But it’s impossible not to feel a sense of continuity and that of all Cheng’s works, 22° Lunar Halo somehow provides a present-day bridge between Cloud Gate past and Cloud Gate future. Cheng and Lin are from vastly different generations, so it’s no surprise that their approach and movement vocabulary are diverse, that Cheng’s is more rebellious. But both are craftsmen with a humanistic approach to their art, making dance that is linked to the real world and real concerns, and indeed often specifically to Taiwan. My message would be ‘fear not’. It could be an exciting ride.
22° Lunar Halo will move into Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s repertory next year. I understand some European performances are already scheduled.
Cloud Gate 2’s 22° Lunar Halo brought to end the dance programme at the 2019 Taiwan International Festival of the Arts in Taipei. The programme has felt a bit thin this year, maybe due to the sometimes long gaps between shows. With only one production from overseas (Christian Rizzo’s une maison), it’s been rather lacking on overseas flavour too, and this is supposed to be an international festival.
But there has been no skimping on quality. Every work has been engaging and full of interest. Many have made you think too.
Indeed, while 22° Lunar Halo must take the top spot, it’s a very close-run thing between the others. If I had to pick a second favourite, though, it must surely be Free Steps NiNi (自由步—身體的眾生相) by Su Wei-chia (蘇威嘉). It was different. It took quality dance to unusual spaces, and in doing do reached an audience that may well have been otherwise untouched. That is an important part of what arts festivals should be. Hopefully we can look forward to more of the same in 2020 and beyond.