Cloud Gate Dance Theatre: Lunar Halo in Taipei

National Theater, Taipei
March 7, 2024

Weather lore around the world is that lunar halos foreshadow bad weather although, in many cultures, the phenomenon is also regarded as a portent of greater, more ominous change. When the now no more Cloud Gate 2 (雲門2) premiered Lunar Halo (毛月亮) in 2019, little did we know what was just around corner.

Now an established part of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s (雲門舞集) repertory, Cheng Tsung-lung’s (鄭宗龍) work considers control and surrender in the relationships between humans and nature; and most specifically, technology, big data and unseen forces. At a time when we again find ourselves teetering in the edge in so many ways, perhaps it’s no surprise to find oneself reading a deeper uncertainty in it too.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in Lunar Halo
by Cheng Tsung-lung
Photo Lee Chia-yeh

I’ve been privileged to watch Lunar Halo many times: in Taipei, Taichung and London; in empty and full theatres; digitally and in person. It’s one of those very rare pieces that doesn’t just grow on you with repeated viewings but that seems to reveal more, to spark new thoughts, with each revisiting.

A fusion of past and present, tradition and modernity, the human and the technological, the individual and big brother, it’s a work that engages the mind and the body. It is one of Cheng’s best works, certainly his best full-length piece to date, and quite simply terrific.

From the opening still picture of a single dancer in a single spotlight, his back arched, a series of human images fills the stage. Music by Icelandic band Sigur Rós, which threads the work with an eerie atmosphere, is immediately ominous and threatening. Against enveloping blackness, a group of men form a tight diagonal and link arms. Their bodies pulse, expand and contract, rise and fall. Some sort of creature maybe, or perhaps a finely-oiled machine.

When a giant LED screen appears above, dancers are reflected in it mirror-like. There’s a powerful surveillance feel. It’s not long before a giant, multicoloured halo appears on it, provoking a ritualistic dance beneath, the circular nature of which reflecting the imagery above. When individuals break out to stare at the phenomenon, there’s a sense of awe and concern.

While Lunar Halo deals with modern issues, it also feels very elemental. As scenes melt seamlessly into each other, the work is at its clearest when the dancers visibly connect with and interact with the visuals. Although even here, Cheng leaves room for interpretation. When the ensemble almost reverentially approaches the giant LED figure of Yeh Po-sheng (葉博聖), the immediate reaction is that they are in the presence of a god. But is it a human-like god, or is the massive size of the image, which makes the dances look minute, a metaphor for the overwhelming supremacy of the digital over the corporeal? Is the ‘god,’ in fact the technology?

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

That thought gets extra backing when a digital hand reaches down as if to scoop up the dancers beneath, before turning into a fist that’s symbolic of power; and again towards the end when the giant overhead LED screen bears down on the dancers, apparently crushing them under its force and weight.

There are times when the impact of the digital imagery is less certain, however. That leads my mind down a side alley. For all that visual designer Jam Wu’s (吳耿禎) huge LED screens and Ethan Wang’s (王奕盛) projections play major roles in Lunar Halo, what would it be like without them? Or at least without some of them. Different? In places, undoubtedly. As powerful? So potent is the choreography in itself that, probably yes, albeit differently.

In what is now something of a feature of Cheng’s choreography, much of the movement references the wide rocking gait and flung arms of the bajiajaing (eight generals) of local temple parades.

Ritualistic scenes continue to occur, dancers in close formation or apart, in a circle or a line. Such groups are often balanced with a female soloist whose dance is even more frenzied and angular, and whose hair flies wildly in response to her shamanistic outpourings. Without exception, they are electrifying, the energy released remarkable. Among the best is one by Yen Hsueh-hsin (顏斈芯) when the rest of the cast approach the enormous figure of Po.

Shen Po-hung’s (沈柏宏) lighting and Chen Shao-yen’s (陳劭彥) muted individual earthy costumes add to the feel. Most of the latter come with fringes that swirl dramatically, adding extra layers to the dancers’  movement.

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

Very different is a solo by Fan Chia-hsuan (范家瑄), and not only because you can see her so clearly. In a nude leotard that makes her appear naked and with hair in a braided ponytail, she seems vulnerable. Her dance is a fascinating mix of articulations and isolations, of strange angles and off-centre moments. And all done with marvellous tai-chi-like control. Without doubt, it’s the individual highlight of the piece.

Lunar Halo ends with what feels like a lament. After a musical and choreographic build up, a state of calm emerges. To haunting vocals, another superb female solo, this time by Shao Hsing-wen (邵倖紋), takes place against a pile of bodies. As the light fades and silence envelops the theatre, we are left with emptiness. Except in the mind and the memory, where Lunar Halo lives on.