David Mead is at the National Theater, Taipei for Cloud Gate 2 in 13 Tongues
March 13, 2016
For his first whole-evening work for Cloud Gate 2 (雲門2), artistic director Cheng Tsung-lung (鄭宗龍) turned to memories of his childhood and a story his mother used to tell him when he was a child.
‘Thirteen Tongues’ was a 1960s Taipei street artist in Bangka (Wanhua), the oldest and once most prosperous part of the city. Acclaimed for his storytelling and relating of anecdotes, he was especially noted for the genius with which he portrayed multiple roles as he did so, male and female, old and young. He could also sing and peddle goods. He was what you might call a ‘character’.
While Cheng’s 13 Tongues (十三聲) draws on the man and his time, wisely he does not attempt to tell his story; to recreate the person or the time per se. Rather, his dance focuses on atmosphere as it brings forth the bustle, the energy, the noise and the colour of the streets of the period – and indeed the man. While far from being My Nostalgia, My Songs (我的鄉愁，我的歌), like that work of Lin Hwai-min’s (林懷民), 13 Tongues is a personal and private memory given life via a contemporary recollection and outlook.
The initial slightly ghostly images (lighting by Shen Po-hung, 沈柏宏) and sounds create an aura. A single bell is rung as the cast stand as if in some ancient photograph. When it bursts into action, the stage is filled with screams and shouts. The hubbub of the street is there for all to see. It’s busy, very busy, and everyone seems to have a story to tell, everyone seems larger than life. The monotone colour palette helps create a sense of distance, as if what we are seeing is not real but indeed a series of fragments of a past reality.
Lim Giong’s (林強) soundscape helps enormously. A combination of experimental and electronic sounds interspersed with Nakashi music (popular street music during the Japanese colonial period), snatches of folksong (actually from Hengchun in Southern Taiwan), hints of street theatre, and suggestions of the everyday, it helps transport you to the time. Unfortunately, it loses its grip towards the end, though, when it sounds increasingly like nondescript and totally unmemorable pop, complete with heavy beat. Anything but unfortunate is Cheng’s decision to have the dancers clap, stamp, chant and sing. Asking dancers use voice, and especially sing, is so often a recipe for disaster so poorly is it performed, but here everyone was excellent, and it appeared to be done without resorting to microphones.
Like the music, the dance itself references tradition, the everyday and the modern with hints of martial arts movement in among gesture, modern and contemporary dance. There are people busying themselves on the streets, arguments, religious processions and relationships. It’s not difficult to see dancers as people going about their business, including street sellers, beggars and thugs. The action is often concentrated on one part of the stage, which magnifies the effect. Even for someone who wasn’t there, Cheng manages to create the sense that this is what it was like. It’s so effective, you can almost smell Guangzhou Street.
It’s not all hectic. Cheng neatly inserts quieter moments that include a gorgeous solo from one of the women that’s full of intensity; all expansive movement and full of sharp turns.
As the memories get stronger, so colour starts to appear among the monotone visuals. Based on sketches by art designer He Jia-xing (何佳興), Lin Bing-hao (林秉豪) produced a series of costumes that use lots of bright blues, reds, yellows and pinks that show up fluorescent under the lights, a reference to the fact that outdoor theatre in Taiwan used to use such tones to get around the lack of lighting. It is striking, although more so when used sparingly (as initially when one of the women in a blue number with red and yellow ribbon-like swirls appears unexpectedly from among everyone else) than later when everyone dons such colours. Perhaps it’s the way they are lit, but they seem more modern than past, or perhaps it’s just a modern take on the past (how we see the past is, after all, shaped by the present – and vice-versa).
There’s colour in projections too, if a little overdone. They do get rather psychedelic in the final moments. It rather felt and looked like someone had just a little too much time on their hands and couldn’t stop themselves using it. The projections also include a somewhat enigmatic swimming koi carp. Presumably there is meaning, but it’s very ambiguous; maybe a reference to the fish seen swimming in temple courtyard pools. Again, I’m not convinced.
13 Tongues is not perfect. A little judicious pruning might not come amiss, especially towards the end, and perhaps having some local knowledge helps, but it is a fascinating and engaging reflection of what was. Although Cloud Gate 2 don’t tour abroad hugely, I suspect the very local theme, and the way the sense of time and place is projected, might just make this a winner overseas.
13 Tongues continues on tour to the Chungshan Hall, Taichung (臺中市文化局中山堂, March 18-19), Chiayi Performing Arts Center (嘉義縣表演藝術中心, March 25-26), and the Dadong Arts Center, Kaohsiung (高雄市大東文化藝術中心, April 1-3).