Cloud Gate 2’s Spring Riot 2018 (雲門2 《2018春鬥》)

Cloud Gate Theater, Tamsui, Taiwan
April 14, 2018

David Mead

Cloud Gate 2 (雲門2) have often used their annual Spring Riot (春鬥) programme to highlight emerging Taiwanese choreographers. This year, artistic director Cheng Tsung-lung (鄭宗龍) went out on a limb more than ever with the pairing of Liu Kuan-hsiang (劉冠詳), an unconventional choreographer still in his twenties working with an ensemble for the first time; and Tainaner Ensemble (台南人劇團) co-artistic director, playwright and actor, Tsai Pao-chang (蔡柏璋).

At a news conference back in January when the programme was announced, Cheng said that he wanted to see if there was another possibility for dance. What he discovers with Tsai’s Aller Simple, second on the programme and by light years the better of the two, is physical theatre of the sort that’s been around for decades, albeit very good physical theatre.

Cloud Gate 2 in Aller Simple by Tsai Pao-changPhoto Chen You-wei
Cloud Gate 2 in Aller Simple by Tsai Pao-chang
Photo Chen You-wei

The opening five minutes or so watching dancers carry props back and forth, slowly setting up does sort of suggest getting ready for a journey but at the time was really of little interest. Then there’s a scene where the dancers follow voiceover instructions to walk, run, hop, fly and so on; although done well, something else that we’ve all seen countless times.

Aller Simple then picks up a lot. It is a little bit obscure, a bit messy, a bit disjointed and at times surreal, but Tsai does conjure up effectively a sense of people on their way to some undefined destination. Not surprisingly, there’s little ‘dance’ as most people would understand it, but he certainly knows how to present bodies on stage. Everything is also perfectly paced.

The individuality of the dancers is highlighted, not in dance technique terms but as real people; a collage of experiences that speaks as much of looking back as looking forward, of memories as well as departure. It is sometimes blunt, hard even, but also sometimes verges on the poetic.

Tsai a master of the memorable image. They come thick and fast: yellow umbrellas, a sort of Chinese lantern made from the same, a man pulling a wheelie-bin with a pair of legs sticking out, a woman pulling a huge ball of wool as she walks that resembles a prisoner’s ball and chain, gorging on tomatoes; and all the time someone in a wheelchair slowly trundling back and forth. It says a huge amount for the cast that they all looked totally at home.

Cloud Gate 2 in Superbeing by Liu Kuan-hsiangPhoto Chen You-wei
Cloud Gate 2 in Superbeing by Liu Kuan-hsiang
Photo Chen You-wei

Aller Simple may not be a new approach, even in Taiwan, but at least it’s a classy example of its genre (I suspect there could easily be a 60 to 70-minute work in there), which is a lot more than can be said of Liu’s awful Superbeing, which opened the programme.

Experiments in the arts are good things, to be encouraged. It’s also good to shake the audience up occasionally, even though they might not agree. But in arts, sciences or wherever, not all experiments work and there are times when they should remain in the studio or laboratory.

Superbeing is the sort of piece one sees on a bad day, a very bad day, at some obscure Fringe venue; or at some festival full of choreographers one has never heard of before and likely never will again. Frankly, it was one of the weakest, most dispiriting 35 minutes I’ve seen from a major company in a long time.

Liu did have a reasonable idea. He describes it as a science fiction story and talks of beings evolving and drifting in the universe, peeking in on each planet as they pass. And at first, you do sort of get the ‘evolving’ bit, the dancers, in a line head on to the audience, slowly turning and tumbling in the gloom, the combined shape constantly metamorphosing. Turned through 90 degrees, the same idea is repeated at the end, the lighting and side-on perspective now allowing the audience to see how it was done, although it looked far less interesting second time around.

Superbeing by Liu Kuan-hsiangPhoto Chen You-wei
Superbeing by Liu Kuan-hsiang
Photo Chen You-wei

As for the rest, the cast push, pull and kick out. They stick their tongues out and pull faces. They stumble and flop around mostly lit solely by a stage lamp carried by one of them (you can hide a lot with minimal lighting but not here). Superbeing is a total mismatch with the programme note and title. The idea not only doesn’t go anywhere but it is very difficult to see what Liu is trying to convey other than a bunch of drunks on a heavy night out. It is the total opposite to Aller Simple. Does that have more dancer investment, personal ownership of ideas and movement, I wonder? Although Liu’s had some success as a solo dancer-choreographer, this was his first time working with an ensemble and it shows.

Liu also fancies himself as a composer and was jointly responsible for the cacophony that accompanies everything along with Chung Bo-hsun (鍾柏勳, aka MAD). Played at volume for no apparent reason, the racket of distorted, synthesized sounds, complete with heavy beat, never gives up. From time to time it includes what sounds like someone laughing uproariously, at which point Liu has a dance shake as if similarly guffawing. When the soundtrack suggests shaking, the dancers shake. From drunks to figures from some low-budget 1950s horror B-movie. It is dreadfully naïve and predictable.

I am all for experimental work, dance moving on (Cloud Gate included), and for promoting and mentoring young Taiwanese choreographers, goodness knows they need both, but are main-stage performances really the place for what are essentially try-outs, especially filling a programme with them? At least Aller Simple saved the day, although memories of Superbeing will linger long.