Sadler’s Wells, London
May 9, 2018
Usually Cloud Gate (雲門舞集) offerings leave one feeling serene and contemplative, but not so Formosa (關於島嶼). It is shot through with restless energy, like the unstable tectonic plates on which the eponymous island sits. Bounded geologically between the Philippine Sea Plate to the east and the Eurasian Plate to the west, Taiwan looks, Janus-like in both directions, indeed is pulled back and forth by subterranean forces. The very choice of the Portuguese colonial name Formosa (“beautiful island”) as a title looks both back and forward into the new era for the Company sans Lin Hwai-min (林懷民), who is to step down as artistic director at the end of next year.
Dressed in autumnal shades of sage green, rust and ochre, the dancers arrive on stage pacing rapidly like a crowd on the streets of Taipei. When they stop, it is abrupt and brief, before pacing starts anew. A pas de deux is smoother but still infused with a sense of urgency. Arms curve and beckon then push away. Chiang Hsun (蔣勳) recites poems about the landscape, fishing, rice paddies, the weather, sika deer while calligraphy is projected naming mountains, rivers, cities and villages. A river torrent of characters decelerates into a slow slush, like ice gripping the dying heart of a summer spate as it clutches it in wintry slumber.
Chang Hao-jan and Lulu Lee combine forces to provide lighting and projections that turn characters into a set. How refreshing to see a white stage instead of everything being sucked into the absorbent black. Dancers are clear against the projections and then seem to be engulfed by them as characters loom large, drop down like monsoon rain and then thunder in an accumulating black mass like buildings falling in the ever-present earthquakes. Movement is visceral, often angry, with grunts and gasps punctuating stamping feet and flailing arms. Dancers group together and in opposition and then circle khorovod-like in co-operation.
Riven by earth tremors, battered by monsoons, Formosa also alludes to the political rifts that have seen the island natives driven out by Han Chinese after Dutch and Spanish colonisation, rule by the Chinese Qing dynasty, then the Japanese, the transition from the dictatorship of stratocracy to a semi-presidential system, albeit one stained by corruption.
Kaija Saariaho, Gérard Grisey, Liang Chun-mei mei (梁春美) and Sangpuy Katatepan Mavaliyw create music that evokes the primal chanting of the shaman, the bells and percussion of gamelan and the haunting pan-pipe invocation of the impressionist composers’ flute.
At the end of it all, the sea creeps further and further on stage, rollers break on the shore and all is swept away. Over 350,000 people have suffered from flooding in Taiwan in the last year, so maybe that will be the ultimate fate of at least the low-lying parts of the beautiful island.
Lin leaves Formosa as a surprising farewell present to Cloud Gate and its audiences. Maybe all is restless. For 45 years, his company has known no other. It is an ensemble that does not just dance but truly lives to dance. At the second curtain call, he ushers the dancers into a formation that creates the shape of the island that has spawned his amazing creations.