Cloud Gate Dance Theatre: Lunar Halo

Sadler’s Wells, London
December 1, 2023

This was the first production from Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan (雲門舞集) that I have seen since Lin Hawi-min (林懷民) retired. So, it was with a little trepidation that I approached Lunar Halo (毛月亮). Well, in Cheng Tsung-lung (鄭宗龍), the company is clearly in very safe hands. Although this production departs from an emphasis on Taiwanese culture (or perhaps it’s that it has moved to modern-day Taiwanese culture), it mesmerises from curtain up to the end.

Erring more towards the abstract, it takes as its title the phenomenon of the lunar halo, which, coincidentally, was visible in London last weekend and did indeed precede a storm. Let us hope that it was purely meteorological, although a mere glance at the world news would suggest otherwise.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in Lunar Halo
Photo Liu Chen-hsiang

Choreographer and artistic director Cheng based the work on the apparent conflict between modern technology and the cultural roots of his dancers, but it also suggests something much more primitive. Like the sacrifice of the Chosen One in Rite of Spring, there is a frantic, raw, earthiness throughout to the production. The total commitment of the dancers produces a torrid intensity that sears across the footlights.

Lunar Halo is a work about bodies and Cheng Tsung-lung, literally strips his dancers down to their bare bones. Modesty is preserved on stage with flesh coloured, albeit minimal, costumes but huge projections of naked and near-naked dancers frame the upstage area while dancers knot and twist themselves into extraordinary shapes.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in Lunar Halo
Photo Lee Chia-yeh

Arms link and power like drive-rods on a steam train, then bend and flex in sinuous patterns supported by bodies that find multiple levels with seamless fluidity. Faces flame with intensity and suck in the attention; now on the detail, now on the bigger picture. Projections by Ethan Wang (王奕盛) and visual design by Jam Wu (吳耿禎) create dendritic patterns, then morph into human figures, and finally a waterfall brings to mind the calligraphy in Lin Hwai-min’s 2007 work Wild Cursive.

Huang Yung-huai in Lunar Halo
Photo Lee Chia-yeh

It left the audience breathless but not obviously the dancers whose stamina, energy and iron-hard technique make one gasp. Extensions elongate into a high second whilst supporting legs remain totally static. The tai-chi and qi-gong are so thoroughly embodied that they enable flawless dance and truly enslave technique to art.

As with the best gesamkünstwerk, the effect is completed fully by Icelandic band Sigur Rós’ terrific score and Shen Po-hung’s (沈柏宏) equally terrific lighting. The former assists in making the work utterly mesmerising and the latter sculptural, whilst leading the eye to changes in choreographic form.

It is hard to believe that Cloud Gate is celebrating half a century. If Lunar Halo its anything to go by, they are in very safe hands for at least the next fifty years.