Exchange: Cloud Gate Dance Theatre meets TAO Dance Theater as Lin Hwai-min bows out

National Theater, Taipei
October 17, 2019

David Mead

This year’s Cloud Gate (雲門舞集) autumn season in Taiwan, the company’s final programme curated by retiring artistic director Lin Hwai-min (林懷民) took on a different hue from usual, Exchange taking the form of a rare form of collaboration.

Following an invitation to director designate Cheng Tsung-lung (鄭宗龍) from Tao Ye (陶冶) that he make a piece for his Beijing-based TAO Dance Theater (陶身體劇場), it was agreed that the two choreographers should create on the other’s company; Tao working with Cloud Gate’s dancers and Cheng with Tao’s. It was always going to be interesting and revealing to see how each group of dancers coped with a different approach and style. The programme was then rounded off by Lin’s Autumn River (秋水), performed by five senior dancers who are also retiring from the company.

Cheng’s Multiplication (乘法) features nine dancers from TAO Dance Theater, led by the outstanding Duan Ni (段妮). Set to music by Lim Giong (林強), it’s neatly crafted work but left everyone in no doubt that these were Tao’s dancers.

TAO Dance Theater in Multiplication by Cheng Tseng-lungPhoto Liu Chen-hsiang
TAO Dance Theater in Multiplication by Cheng Tsung-lung
Photo Liu Chen-hsiang

There is certainly colour. At the beginning the stage is bathed in Lulu W L Lee’s (李琬玲) unusual yellow-green light, and Fan Huai-chih’s (范懷之) striking one-piece costumes that combine sleeveless tops with palazzo pant bottoms include brilliant yellow.

After starting as nine individuals, bodies dipping and curving, the dancers gradually come together in pairs and small groups, sometimes separated by some distance. Arms and legs are released as the dance gets more dynamic. A solo is full of folding and unfolding arms before a duet flows with ease around the stage. The couple reminded me of flotsam being tossed around by the sea, while the upstage chorus of dancers, arms around each other’s shoulders and waists, moved as if in a swell.

The highlight is a trio for three men (Yan Yulin, 鄢煜霖; Fan Min 范敏; and Guo Huanshan, 國桓碩), however. Tightly together their bodies slowly fold around and over one another with graceful ease. The end remains etched in the memory too: two dancers, one holding the other just off the floor, turning around and around in a single spotlight like strange music box figures.

12 by Tao Ye for Cloud Gate Dance TheatrePhoto Zhang Shengkun
12 by Tao Ye for Cloud Gate Dance Theatre
Photo Zhang Shengkun

Tao’s work for Cloud Gate’s dancers takes its place in his numbers series; and since we are now up to 12, then twelve dancers it must have. Of his familiar ensemble and spotless unison work there is no sign, however. In their place are twelve solos, each two to three minutes long.

What is the same are the costumes, loose tops and baggy pants in a single shade of grey. Also grey are the curtains that hang on the back and sides of the stage, making it feel like everything is taking place in an undecorated concrete box. Tao says the inspiration was a rapidly circulating sea of clouds he saw on a mountain top in Sweden. They must have been bleak and snow-laden.

Although the dancers enter from different corners, each solo starts by rolling down from the head and gently dropping to one knee. From there, each dance is largely floor based, each full of rolling, spinning, folding movement in classic Tao style before it’s time for the dancer to leave from one of the other corners.

Each solo is complex and each is different but the dance misses badly the power of the ensemble and the interest created by shifting patterns. While each solo has interest in itself, they do merge into the same greyness as the costume and set. You will also hunt in vain for much connection to Xiao He’s (小河) usual soundscape of assorted punctuated sounds, atonal strings, drones and electronic pings.

By the end, only the solos by Chen Lien-wei (陳聯瑋) and Huang Li-chieh (黃立捷) stuck in the memory, in large part because they were a little more dynamic and a little more upright, in the case of Huang on his shoulders as well as his feet.

There’s a moment to reflect at the end when the lights go down and come back up on an empty stage for a brief while, although what I largely got was an overall impression rather than anything specific.

Autumn River by Lin Hwai-minPhoto Liu Chen-hsiang
Autumn River by Lin Hwai-min
Photo Liu Chen-hsiang

Lin’s Autumn River has the sense of an elegy; a goodbye, although that’s probably a function of the context and Arvo Pärt’s familiar Spiegel im Spiegel as anything else. Farewell was definitely not in Lin’s mind when he ‘threw the piece together’, as he told me, back in 2015 for a fundraising dinner. Now on the big stage, it’s backed by Ethan Wang’s (王奕盛) beautifully soothing projections of video by Howell Chang He-man (張皓然) of red autumn leaves in a gin clear shallow stream in Kyoto, Japan, the sun glinting on the fine gravel of the river bed. It is sublimely delicious.

Equally beautiful and heavenly are the five dancers: Chou Chang-ning (周章佞), Huang Pei-hua (黃珮華), Su I-ping (蘇依屏) Huang Mei-ya (黃媺雅) and Yang I-chun (楊儀君). Lin’s choreography is delicate and nuanced with occasional connections between individuals, especially in arms. It brought back memories of Moon Water (水月) and Listening to the River (聽河) in particular.

The five move quietly, often walking slowly as if remembering. They melt and bend gracefully. They ripple like the water in the projections behind that dwarf them. Sometimes they move as a group. A small shoal of fish, perhaps, occasionally darting as they are startled by something.

It is the end of an era. But ends are usually new beginnings too, although Cloud Gate’s transfer of leadership feels more like a continuation, a development. The handover has certainly been well-planned and beautifully handled. Cloud Gate will surely continue to ripple and flow like that water in Autumn River.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre will be at Sadler’s Wells in London from February 26-29, 2020 with a double bill of Cheng’s 13 Tongues and Lin’s Dust. Visit for details and tickets.