Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan return with a work that journeys into another realm

Cheng Tsung-lung
Photo Lee Chia-yeh

David Mead looks ahead with artistic director and choreographer Cheng Tsung-lung to Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan’s forthcoming return to Sadler’s Wells with Lunar Halo.

“I first came across the Chinese term ‘máo yuè liàng’ (毛月亮, lunar halo) on the internet,” explains Cheng Tsung-lung (鄭宗龍). “Its literal translation in Chinese is ‘hairy’ or ‘furry moon,’ which aroused my curiosity. It turns out that it refers to the lunar halo, not commonly seen in Taiwan.”

The phenomenon, an apparent ring around the moon, is an optical illusion caused by the refraction and reflection of moonlight from ice crystals. It has been shrouded in mystery throughout history with spiritual beliefs often surrounding it, while in ancient folklore, it is often taken as a sign foreboding something ominous is going to happen.

From China, he says, “There is a passage by Su Xun (蘇洵), a Song Dynasty poet, that translates to, ‘When the base column is moist, rain is on the way; when a halo appears around the moon, wind will come into play.” When a lunar halo appears in the sky, it signifies that the wind is about to blow. It is a sign.”

Cheng wondered what the sign means for us, what is the wind in our times. “Will our bodies be used less and less frequently?” Are virtual worlds increasingly becoming an integral part of our being? How about our work, emotional exchanges, quest for information, and our visual and auditory desires? I want to create a work, to explore…”

The result is Lunar Halo (毛月亮), a work that raises questions about our own existence to this fast-changing digital world. Against a background of images and videos displayed on three large LED screen, dancers become symbols of struggles, desires, loneliness, hope, and love.

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

Cheng says that while ideas evolved subtly and subconsciously during the work’s creation, he knew he wanted to “place the screen of the smartphone we use every day on stage. Simultaneously, I wanted to tell a story. I wanted to explore the juxtaposition between nature, individuals, communities, fire, electricity, authority and all the small things; all things, worlds that coexist simultaneously. I often find myself unsure of what I’m doing exactly, but what I do know is that I don’t want the movements to be too formal.”

So, does he see this meeting between old and new, tradition and modernity, cold and warm, as being a jarring collision or something that can happen in harmony?

“Like the contemporary world, in certain places, they are violently colliding, but there are other places where they coexist harmoniously. People’s DNA has not changed much from earlier times, but the world we are dealing with is very different from the past,” he replies.

A feature of Lunar Halo is the way scale and height are used with the digital aspects of the work often seeming to overpower the human. One unmissable huge image is that of Cloud Gate dancer and rehearsal assistant, Yeh Po-sheng (葉博聖). “His features and silhouette made me instinctively feel he was the one.” But when it comes to meaning, “I don’t want to be too specific,” Cheng says.

Cheng agrees that the work does have a sense of civilization falling apart and apprehension for the future. That it was premiered immediately before Covid struck is a coincidence but he says he does worry about our evolution as we as people lag behind the pace of technological change. And we do have to change with it, he says. If we do not, “I can envision the disappearance of the body and, eventually, dance being gone with the wind.

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

Specifically, he notes how our personal preferences are gathered in massive databases that then guide us in particular directions. “We may seem to navigate freely through the vast Internet, but in fact, we are unconsciously trapped within the circles of those preferences.”

The movement vocabulary in Lunar Halo is beautiful, but sometimes in a strange way. That’s not the result of rationality, says Cheng. “When creating, we often find ourselves making instinctive responses. In other words, we go back to our inner selves to find the drive and motivation, without paying much attention to the outcome of the actions. We continuously focus on and layer the wild responses coming from within our bodies.” It’s an approach that moves away from traditional trained movement and that emphasises the dancers’ natural physicality and sometimes giving scenes a tribal feeling.

Visual designer Jam Wu’s (吳耿禎) screens and Ethan Wang’s (王奕盛) projections are totally integral with technology meeting the body via projections onto big screens. “I like to put the machine with the human body on stage at the same time. It feels like they are having a dialogue with the dancers. Something cold encountering something warm.” Colour plays a major role too.

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

For the music, Cheng turned to Icelandic avant-garde band Sigur Rós whose otherworldly music provides a kind of distorted atmosphere and also suggests winter. “They are beautiful and stir my emotions, yet very restrained. When conceptualizing, I seek a sound that captures nature and human emotions. My instinct often leads me to think of Sigur Rós.”

And finally, when asked what he would like audiences to take away from Lunar Halo, Cheng replies, “I hope they can feel the ‘motion,’ a seed of desire that motivates them to use their bodies.

A dance of changing scenes and moods, where technology meets the body, with choreography that is sometimes fierce and wild, sometimes delicate and beautiful. That’s Lunar Halo.

Lunar Halo by Cheng Tsung-lung and Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan is at Sadler’s Wells from November 30 to December 2, 2023.