Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s 13 Tongues, open-air amid the rice fields of Chihshang

Streamed by the company
November 27, 2021

In 2013, to celebrate Cloud Gate’s 40th anniversary, Lin Hwai-min (林懷民) created Rice (稻禾), a work that celebrated the land and its farmers. It was backed by film shot in Chihshang, in Taiwan’s East Rift Valley, a place noted for its organic farming and rice. Since then, the company has returned regularly to the village’s annual Autumn Harvest Art Festival, performing in the open-air among the yellow rice fields.

At the end of October this year, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (雲門舞集) returned once more to present 13 Tongues (十三聲) by Cheng Tsung-lung (鄭宗龍), a work inspired by the eponymous 1960s street artist who performed in and around Bangka, one of the oldest and still most colourful districts of Taipei.

13 Tongues by Cheng Tsung-lung at Chihshang
Photo Liu Chen-hsiang

In many ways, the performance feels as much about the place and the occasion as the dance. With its fields of rice wafting gently in the breeze, sky in multiple shades of grey, and ever-changing clouds slowly drifting in front of the mountains, the landscape certainly provides for a magnificent backdrop. In the distance shots, the dancers look tiny, dwarfed by the scenery; a reminder how small man is compared to nature, which even provides the occasional extra cast member as a bird flies into shot.

On a large stage set up in part of a rice field specially cleared for the show, 13 Tongues opens and closes to the sound of a handbell rung by one of the dancers. As the performers’ loose black costumes also flutter in the breeze, the dance bursts into action to a cacophony of sound in the shape of a composition by Lim Giong (林強) that includes Taiwanese folk songs, Nakashi music (popular street music during the Japanese colonial period), and popular and electronic music.

Initially, the dancers almost seem to be searching. But soon it’s like the city waking up as they scuttle here and there. They also run and lope. They stand and stare. It’s theatre; the bustle and noise of the street represented in sound and movement. But there are also silences; moments to pause and catch breath. The full of life and vibrant choreography has all the curves and flowing strength and grace that we expect from Cloud Gate, but there’s a more modern, punchy, accented edge too.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in 13 Tongues by Cheng Tsung-lung
at the 2021 Chihshang Autumn Harvest Art Festival
Photo Liu Chen-hsiang

As the group, swoops, ebbs and flow, it’s often reminiscent of a murmuration of birds. Here and there, a single dancer or couple breaks free. One duet is especially fast-paced and full of exciting lifts. In the open-air, the dance does lose some of the dreamlike feel it has on stage, but it gains in other ways. The open vista certainly magnifies the freedom of it all. The lack of a black backdrop and close-up camerawork also allows the choreography to be seen more clearly.

The black of the costumes eventually gives way to colour. First, one of the women appears in a dress full of yellow, orange and white. As she is lifted, carried and stands on the backs of the others, my mind goes back to Ethan Wang’s (王奕盛) video projection of a huge koi carp swimming serenely. When she is made to disappear (a clever-looking but actually quite simple move), her empty costume acts like a memory or spirit of what was.

There are more multi-coloured robes later. I actually think, if anything, they look even better in the natural light than they do under the theatre lights, where they take on a fluorescent, near psychedelic neon quality, although that is very Bangka, as indeed is 13 Tongues as a whole.