Cloud Gate Dance Theatre: 13 Tongues and Dust – Sadler’s Wells, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Choreographers: Cheng Tsung-lung, Lin Hwai-min

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre is Taiwan’s foremost contemporary dance company, and could have a strong claim to being one of the world’s greatest. But it is in a time of transition: its artistic director Lin Hwai-min, who founded the company in 1973, stepped down earlier this year. His successor, Cheng Tsung-lung, joined the company in 2002 and become AD of sister company Cloud Gate 2 in 2014.

This transition is marked by a tour of two pieces, the first of which, 2016’s 13 Tongues, is a showcase for Cheng’s choreography. And there is a lot of show to case – the whole piece clocks in at well over an hour, often threatening to overstay its welcome.

The piece is inspired by tales Cheng’s mother told him about Thirteen Tongues, a 1960s street artist who lived in the Bangka district of Taipei City. Cheng takes this as an opportunity to weave together ensemble pieces and solo routines, stitching together multiple stories without a single overarching narrative.

Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of the piece – at least at first – is the sound. The dancers, all clad in loosely flowing black robes, are initially called on stage by the ringing of a handbell; as they break out into pockets of movement, they start to break out into a cacophony of exhortations that build up into a wall of sound.

Elsewhere, the sound is dominated by a musical score which mixes Taiwanese music with elements from India and the West, often with a thumping electronic heart. Later pieces see dancers perform to folk songs and Taoist chants sung by other dancers in the company, which actually form the most satisfying aural pieces and, as a result, connect audience to dancer most effectively.

Beyond the music, costume, lights and projections come to dominate. Initially, the only splashes of colour come as the dancers’ head, hands and feet step into beams of coloured light: but as the piece progresses, a Goddess arrives clad in robes that fluoresce in beautiful, bright neon.

The contrast that outfit provides in contrast to the black of the other dancers inspires perhaps the best section of the whole piece, as flashes of neon colour dominate the stage and the robes seem to take on their own life.

As a statement of Cheng’s intent, it is fierce and uncompromising. Whether it is wholly welcome is another matter.

The companion piece in this short tour is almost wholly different. Departing AD Lin Hwai-min’s 2014 Dust is set to Shostakovich’s String Quartet no. 8, which clocks in at a very respectable half an hour.

Shostakovich wrote the mournful piece after visiting Dresden in 1960, the East German city little changed since World War II bombings had all but destroyed the city. Lin takes this elegy for a casualty of war and treats it as a requiem for the 21st century, an indictment of humanity’s obsession with war, and the plagues and famines that follow in destruction’s wake.

The twenty-strong company of dancers shuffle on to the stage through plumes of dust, numb and zombified. Occasionally, one will break away and try to dance a routine, before collapsing in seeming exhaustion. In twos and threes, the dancers cling to and support one another, expressing solidarity in their suffering.

It’s a moderately moving piece, but Lin’s best choreography comes, ironically, as all the dancers are seated. Sitting in four rows of five, the heads and arms of the dancers ripple and undulate. Occasionally bodies rise briefly, like dolphins from the ocean. And then, as the seated dancers’ tumult increases, bodies break completely free, ride the human surf in agony and fade back down until consumed by a mass of arms.

A brief piece, maybe, but one which knows exactly how to make its point. Positioning an older, wiser, dare I say better, piece by Cloud Gate’s outgoing artistic director directly after a rather less impressive number by his replacement is, perhaps, not the best marker of transition that this company could have made.

Continues until 29 February 2020

The Reviews Hub Score

Uncomfortable transition

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