Uniquely Taiwan: Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in Legacy

National Theater, Taipei
April 21, 2023

Back in London, if you ask someone what they consider to be a Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (雲門舞集) signature work, they will probably plump for something like Moon Water (水月) or Songs of the Wanderers (流浪者之歌). But in Taiwan, as important and much loved as those pieces are, it’s the much earlier Legacy (薪傳) that stands tall. Presently being restaged as part of the company’s 50th anniversary celebrations, it is ninety minutes of magnificent dance, and magnificent theatre.

In simple terms, Legacy is an homage to the pioneers who crossed the Taiwan Strait to settle on the island in the 17th century, telling their story through eight episodes: Prologue/Honouring the Ancestors (序幕), Call Of The New Land (唐山), Crossing the Black Water (渡海), Taming The New Land (拓荒), Joy In The Wilderness (野地的祝福), Death and Rebirth (死亡與新生), Planting the Rice Sprouts (耕種與豐收) and Epilogue/Celebration (節慶). The movement is a meeting of modern and traditional styles, the chronological narrative and meaning as clear as a bell. No need to read programme notes here.

But it is so much more. Created by founder Lin Hwai-min (林懷民) in 1973, the premiere coincided with the break in diplomatic relations between Taiwan and the United States, a turning point in the island’s history. It was also made at a time when local people were anyway becoming increasingly aware if what it is to be Taiwanese. As the work tells their ancestors’ story, it’s therefore no great surprise that it equally reflects on identity, asking ‘Who are we?’ and ‘Where did we come from?’ In doing so, it emphasises togetherness, and a spirit of mutual help, family and community. The work most certainly shows hardship, but that with solidarity and diligence, it can be overcome. There’s surely a message there for all.

Taming The New Land
Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in Legacy by Lin Hwai-min
Photo Liu Chen-hsiang

Legacy opens quietly, the dancers, in modern dress, offering incense to their ancestors. As they subsequently undress to show their traditional garments beneath, one senses that it’s not just a preparation for telling the story, but a revealing of their inner selves.

Chains of bodies assemble like ships’ hawsers. Bodies bend. Feet stamp. There is a strong sense of toil and labour. But a new born child too, and how women and partners are committed to creating a future for their children and grandchildren. And a finger that points to that future, and a new land across the sea.

Cue the late Chen Da (陳達), a street-singer from Hengchun in southern Taiwan who, discovered in old age by the rest of the island, became a legendary improvisational folk singer, and the first of three beautifully atmospheric interludes in the form of ballads sung in Taiwanese. No dance, just his yueqin (moon lute) and voice full of soul, here telling how the people left with heavy hearts, not knowing what the future or Taiwan held. His tale goes on to detail the surging waves of the ‘Black Water,’ know today as the Taiwan Strait.

For all the later fireworks thrill, Crossing the Black Water is probably the work’s most famous section. It’s amazing how much you can do with a large piece of white fabric. It becomes a sail, then waves that seem to engulf the travellers, tossing and battering them. They pray. They scream. But they survive. It is fierce and very, very dramatic. Given the present political climate, it’s not a huge leap to see the Taiwan of today as a boat on similarly rough seas.

Joy In The Wilderness
Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in Legacy by Lin Hwai-min
Photo Liu Chen-hsiang

In two further interludes, Chen Da tells how they fought and worked hard to establish themselves, and cultivated the land. Farming was tough, he tells us, with not even oxen to plough the land. Rather pertinently, he asks ‘what your hearts will be’ in the future.

Legacy may open very quietly but it is often a work of intense, fierce and explosive energy. That’s certainly the case in Taming The New Land, from men, most notably in the famous ‘frog jump’ moment, and women alike.

There are other exciting tumbling sequences too. The male dancers of the original cast were mostly gymnasts and short in stature but while such moves may be more difficult for today’s performers, they made them look easy.

The energy doesn’t just come from those on stage. You can feel it exploding from the pit too, where five members of Ju Percussion Group, kept up a marvellous accompaniment.

Joy In The Wilderness brings smiles for the first time. In contrast to what went before, the dance has a lightness as the women dance for the men, who respond. There’s a pregnancy. We see the woman and her partner in congratulation. A new baby, new life, new hope. But death is never far away as we soon learn.

Back to farming, and in Planting The Rice Sprouts, the dancers crouch in a simple but very effective scene, bodies by now covered in sweat but faces glowing and radiant.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in Legacy by Lin Hwai-min
Photo Liu Chen-hsiang

Back to the idea of bright hopes for the future, Legacy ends in celebration. About 80 minutes in, out come the ribbons. Like fireworks lighting up the sky they are twirled and thrown creating dazzling patterns in the air, the drums adding to the joyous, festive scene that builds to a magnificent climax.

Uniquely Taiwan, Legacy is a work once seen, never forgotten. The whole cast were quite simply amazing throughout. Chatting afterwards, former dancers were impressed too. Bodies and training have changed, so, of course it looks a little different, they felt. But, not only is the movement right, just as importantly, the spirit is right too, they reckoned.

Showing just how popular the work is, Cloud Gate’s 25-performance Taiwan tour sold out long ago, although for those who didn’t grab a ticket, the April 29 performance will be broadcast live onto a big screen in Taipei’s Liberty Square.