Change and hope: Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (雲門舞集) in Lunar Halo (毛月亮) by Cheng Tsung-lung (鄭宗龍)

Cloud Gate Online
18 July 2020

David Mead

Lunar Halo (毛月亮, then called 22° Lunar Halo) by Cheng Tsung-lung (鄭宗龍) proved the highlight of last year’s Taiwan International Festival of the Arts. As that three-month feast of dance, drama and music drew to a close, I commented about the quality of the performances in general and how much as I was looking forward to the 2020 edition. Then ‘events’ got in the way. But on the plus side, Cloud Gate last weekend streamed the work, in doing so taking it to a far wider global audience than would otherwise have been the case.

In folklore around the world, a lunar halo is often seen fearful and a portent of change, running themes in Cheng’s work, perhaps hardly surprising given it was made at a time of uncertainty in many ways as he was preparing to take over the artistic directorship of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (雲門舞集) from founder Lin Hwai-min (林懷民).

In reality, there’s nothing supernatural about lunar halos at all, of course. They’re actually caused by refraction and reflection of light from the moon by tiny hexagonal ice crystals in the thin, wispy clouds high above the earth. The bending of the rays creates a halo with a 22° radius. Hence the work’s original title. How they appear depends on your personal orientation and position. Anyone standing next to you will likely see something a little different.

Lunar Halo by Cheng Tsung-lungPhoto Chang Chen-chou
Lunar Halo by Cheng Tsung-lung
Photo Chang Chen-chou

To otherworldly music by Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós, metaphors abound as Cheng and the superb dancers dig into human anxieties, struggles and loneliness before finding peace in a hopeful ending. At times, it is almost trance-like, tribal and ritualistic, as if that lunar halo of the title has cast a spell. Elsewhere it’s restless and there are suggestions of how people have become avaricious for material pleasures. Out of that come some remarkable solos

A dance of changing scenes and moods rather than narrative, Lunar Halo is a terrific watch. It opens with eight men in a close formed line. Arms linked and in an ever-shifting helix, they rise and fall, expand and contact, as one. Their strength and beauty in Shen Po-hung’s (沈柏宏) sparse lighting is striking.

The ensemble sections tend to fierce and strong. The women arrive to a stage bathed in red. Hair flying, their faces are totally obscured. More colour comes when one of the men ‘ignites’ a giant LED screen, causing it to burst into blue-green flame. Visual designer Jam Wu’s (吳耿禎) panel would provide more magic later, along with Ethan Wang’s (王奕盛) videos and a giant image of a full male nude.

The choreography nods to previous works and local tradition in the wide-legged rocking movement of Taoist temple parades. Another scene resembles a rave that, like those in real life, quickly sees disagreement and moments of violence. When the dancers move in a circle around one man, the suggestion is that he is one who dared to question or dissent, and who has now drawn the ire of the mob.

For all the physical energy, and as is so often the way, it’s the moments of calm the stick in the memory. An early solo for one of the women is full of power and pent up energy, yet most striking are the almost haunted faces of the ensemble watching from upstage. My favourite comes in a moment of silence, a pause for thought, perhaps. Lots of near-naked bodies shift and walk and slowly, the projected figures cleverly multiplied as if we are looking at several angled mirrors. They look out with a sense of apprehension, before eventually bowing their heads in supplication.

That’s followed by the best solo. In just a flesh-coloured leotard, Tsou Ying-lin (鄒瑩霖) slowly folds, twists and arches back in a black void. The combination of unusual isolations and articulations, and grace is spellbinding: a masterpiece of control.

After an hour, out of darkness comes light. Film of a waterfall on a large vertical screen suggests a new dawn, a new spring perhaps. That comes with a feeling of hope, and perhaps a message that however uncertain the present, however large our fears and anxieties, the sun will shine again. And there’s a message for today if ever there was one.

The Lunar Halo streaming has now ended. However, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre may also be watch in Lin Hwai-min: A Retrospective  (林懷民舞作精選) until July 25.