Ritualistic Chinese Dance Piece Moves from Pessimism to Optimism

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Lin Hwai-Min, Nine Songs: Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan/Sadler’s Wells, Sadler’s Wells, London, 21.02.2014 (JO’D)

Dancers: Huang Pei-hua, Yu Chien-hung, Lai Chun-wei, Chen Wei-an, Lin Chih-wei, Chao Tun-yi, Huang Mei-ya, Hsiao Tzu-ping, Ko Wan-chun, Liu Hui-ling, Su I-ping, Yeh Yi-ping, Hou Tang-Li, Lee Tsung-hsuan, Wang Po-nien, Yu Chien-hung, Hou Tang-li, Lin Hsin-fang, Wong Lap-cheong, Tsai Ming-yuan

Choreography: Lin Hwai-min
Music: Indigenous music of Taiwan; traditional music of Asia; percussion score by the Ju Percussion Group
Voice: Chiang Hsun, Kuo Yuan-hsien, Lee Ji, Walis Nogang
Set Design: Ming Cho Lee
Lighting Design: Lin Keh-hua
Costume Design: Lin Hwai-min, Lo Ruey-chi
Mask Design: Lin Yen-ling, Wang Yao-chun
Caligraphy:Tong Yang-tze
Dance Revival: Lee Ching-chun

Celebrating its 40th anniversary, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan returns to Sadler’s Wells with two works: Nine Songs (from 1993), and Rice (which premiered in Taiwan last year and which is to be performed  – and reviewed – on 27th February). Based on nine poems from classical Chinese literature, Nine Songs creates an atmosphere of ritual rather than performance. Dancers wear masks to represent the ‘Sun God’, the ‘Gods of Fate’, or the ‘Goddess of the Xiang River’. To recordings of traditional Asian and Taiwanese music, other dancers move around them as shamans, or as depersonalized ‘Human Beings’. Before even the first ceremony of ‘Greeting the Gods’ is enacted, however, the figure of a man in pin-stripe trousers, black jacket and bowler hat walks diagonally across the stage. The large suitcase he carries suggests western capitalism’s detachment from any one place (suggested here by a pool of lotus flowers) and its genius loci. Similar, apparently anachronistic figures, on bicycles or roller skates, weave their way through the ‘Homage to the God of the Clouds’ and the ‘Homage to the Fallen’. The gods are vulnerable, under threat from the modernity of the 1990s. The masked ‘God of the Clouds’ himself appears balanced on the shoulders of two more, dark-suited men. They could be trying to support him, or to escape his subjection.

The atmosphere of ritual is enhanced by movement which is at times slowed to the point of the non-kinetic. On such occasions it is not a question of steps, but of gesture, of positions held for so long that they are contemplated rather than seen. This is particularly the case in ‘Homage to the Goddess of the Xiang River’ (Huang Mei-ya) and the agonizing ‘Homage to the Mountain Spirit’ (Tsai Ming-yuan). Fast or slow, the movements of the ‘Human Beings’ are always impersonal, even stark. Some scenes bring to mind Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’. Elsewhere the dancers arrange themselves into groups that show what film historian Siegfried Kracauer, in his book ‘From Caligari to Hitler’, calls ‘ornamental despair’. Human beings are shown to be under threat, too. Towards the end of the piece they huddle and cower at a sound that could be helicopter blades. Car headlights (a symbol of change or of progress) have the power to kill; a power that is stronger than the shaman’s. If, despite its beauty, Nine Songs is more pessimistic than pleasurable, the final song, ‘Honoring the Dead’, brings hope as well as peace. Standing dancers, representing the dead, leave the stage one by one as white-robed figures place candles in bowls on the floor around them. By the time this very slowly executed process is completed, the candles form a serpentine path on the otherwise empty stage that seems to connect with the stars on the backdrop behind them.

John O’Dwyer