Magic! Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan in 13 Tongues and Dust

Sadler’s Wells, London
February 26, 2020

Maggie Foyer

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (雲門舞集) returns to London with a truly momentous evening of dance. Their visit marks the transition in directorship as Lin Hwai-min (林懷民), the company’s founder steps down, and Cheng Tsung-Lung (鄭宗龍) takes over. The programme presents a work from each choreographer.

Dust (微塵), by Lin to Dmitri Shostakovich’s most beloved string quartet, the 8th in C minor, is a requiem. Shostakovich referenced his work to the bombing of Dresden in 1945, Lin broadens this to gather in the genocides of the twenty-first century and indeed this could be a lament for those dying under the deadly rain of bombs in Idlib today. Representing such tragedy on stage is no task for the faint hearted but Lin’s courage pays off in a masterpiece which creates searing images of the unimaginable.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in DustPhoto Liu Chen-hsiang
Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in Dust
Photo Liu Chen-hsiang

The dancers are dressed in shabby brown and black, white paint distorting their features to skull-like facelessness but every fibre of each body is fraught with anguish as tense figures hunch over and fearful eyes stare up to the skies. The choreography is stripped back to the bare bones of essential moves. Survivors search for loved ones and find succour in the arms of strangers, clinging in desperation and reacting in grotesque gestures.

Lin marries his concepts expertly with the music. The sombre opening and closing movements on the quartet contrast sharply with the eruption of fierce strings that seem to shriek in pain. The music is never at ease and neither is the dance. Staccato punches intrude into the slow movements and the hustle of the allegro is conflicted by petrified bodies, frozen in fear. In an inspired moment Lin stacks the dancers in a neat quadrangle of twenty bodies and they morph into corpse-like anonymity moving in rigid uniformity that is truly chilling.

Cheng Tsung-lung’s 13 Tongues (十三聲) is a medley of memories from his youth growing up in Bangka, a bustling market area of Taipei. Cheng’s work, like that of the street traders starts at dawn with the clanging of a hand bell. A disparate line of stragglers, all in black, shuffle onto a dark stage. Eccentric individuals emerge from the crowd but as the music morphs into popular rhythms they harmonise into a pulsating corps.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in 13 Tongues by Cheng Tsung-lungPhoto Liu Chen-hsiang
Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in 13 Tongues by Cheng Tsung-lung
Photo Liu Chen-hsiang

All of street life is paraded: A goddess in psychedelic colours is hoisted aloft, and when she is disrobed the garment takes on a life of its own. In dream-like fashion all suddenly transform, changing their sombre dress for eye-watering brightness to close the work. Lim Giong’s music reflects the variety, drawing in folk tunes, popular music and electronic sounds while Ethan Wang’s projections are superb, notably a leviathan koi fish, that almost wriggles free to swim into the auditorium.

Cheng’s movement language is remarkable, showing exceptional range and masterful structure, although the work is a little too long at around 70 minutes and at times needing more clarity in ordering the many parts. His skill in choreographing the ensemble sections is visible throughout as the eleven dancers join forces in animated groups. The pulse of movement is held while individuals play around on the off-beat; interweaving patterns and new threads. Each dancer is of soloist standard and when given their spotlight opportunity they leap into action with lithe, flexible and powerful bodies. It’s magic.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan are at Sadler’s Wells to February 29, 2020. Visit for more details and tickets.