Lin Yatin (林亞婷)
Adapting works by famous, and often favorite, authors is a tricky business at the best of times. Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” has been described as ‘overwritten’, making the usual questions even more difficult. What to include? How true to the original should one be? What to leave out? One reason, perhaps, why pure dance versions are few and far between, with Matthew Bourne’s black tale for New Adventures maybe being the best known. The latest choreographer to take on the gothic novel is Cloud Gate 2 Artistic Director, Cheng Tsung-lung.
Cheng Tsung-lung (鄭宗龍) was born and bred in Taiwan. As such, it’s perhaps no surprise that his 40-minute, seven-dancer adaptation of Wilde’s 1890 novel includes not only his own interpretation, but also cultural transplantation.
Starting with loud trumpet-like Chinese so-na wind instruments from traditional beiguan (北管, literally translated as ‘northern-wind’) music which is often associated with Taiwanese opera, “Dorian Gray” (杜連魁) begins by introducing each main character. This prologue takes place using the narrow horizontal strip of white floor closest to the audience, as a black curtain lowered more than half-way serves as a temporary wall.
A female dancer (Yang Ling-kai, 楊淩凱) rolls out from the wings, dressed in a highly contrasting bright green and red dress. She continuously hops in place. A male dancer (Wang Yeu-kwn, 王宇光) dressed in black soon appears, with a finger lifted, as if making a statement. A tall and slender female dancer (Su I-chieh, 蘇怡潔) joins in, with her hands constantly shaking in a somewhat panic mood. A male trio, standing by at the upper corner with a bright red traditional wooden bench, begins to gallop and hop to the percussive music. The movement of the two almost identically dressed men (with slight color variations) on both sides of the trio can be associated with local puppet figures – joints held by strings while the lower arms are left dangling. Suddenly, as they sit on the bench, a female dancer (Lin I-hsuan, 林宜萱), her long hair covering her face, crawls in from under the black curtain and the bench. The red light from behind the curtain matches the contrasting color scheme of the red lining inside the dark robe of this ghostly figure.
Next, the male dancer in the center of the trio (Luo Sih-wei, 駱思維) begins a duet with Lin, holding onto her hands, as if manipulating a life-size puppet. Others hold their poses at this time, letting the audience focus on this main protagonist – the handsome Dorian Gray and his ‘picture’ (interpreted by the female ‘ghost’).
As this beiguan music – referred in traditional Taiwanese opera as banxian (扮仙, ‘portraying the gods’), which functions as an initial opening of the performance – comes to an end, all dancers get up from where they were positioned and walk over to the upper left corner of the stage, ready for the next section, as a narrator’s voice (J. Patrick) recites the first few sections from Wilde’s novel, including the artist Basil saying: “I really can’t exhibit it. I have put too much of myself into it.”
Interestingly, the movement vocabulary and quality also switches abruptly here to a more fluid and flowing ensemble phrase, as the group of three men and three women slither and slide their torsos and limbs freely through space. Luo, who by now can be clearly identified as the male protagonist Dorian Gray, takes off his shirt to reveal a well-chiseled torso, in preparation to perform his solo – the climax of the piece.
An alumnus of the Dance College of Taipei National University of the Arts (國立薹北藝術大學), Luo’s talent as a performer and choreographer has been acknowledged through various scholarships and awards both at home and abroad. His unique background combining hip hop, Chinese operatic movements, ballet and contemporary dance provides a rich foundation for him to draw upon.
In “Dorian Gray”, Luo’s fluid movements of joint isolations, but with clear and strong accents, danced to the melancholic music of Camille Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan” reminds audiences of his 2011 collaboration with Cheng in the award-winning “On the Road”.
Luo smoothly combines various irrelevant movement sequences that include low-squatting poses with one elbow raised while another arm is extended (poses from Chinese Opera), isolated shoulder rolls that transfer into his protruded opposite hip as if in hip-hop locking, and even a memorably lifting himself bit by bit across the stage while sitting on his behind, as seen in European contemporary dance. At times, his head is lowered, as his attention seems to focus inward, even perhaps going into a trance, reminiscent of shaman-like figures in local temple ceremonies. By this point, the English audio-book is only faintly heard, vaguely reminding the audience of the background context of this dance. Perhaps this is the section where Cheng is relating to that part of the book where Dorian Gray makes a pact with the devil to have his picture turn old and ugly, instead of his own body. Following the loud and clear narrated text, “I will give my soul…,” the soft Western classical music abruptly shifts back to the loud and festive beiguan sound once again.
At this moment, thick black liquid from above starts to drip down on the standing ‘portrait.’ Dorian dances a courtship duet incorporating Taiwanese angular dance vocabulary with the sweet and tall female dancer [Sibyl], who eventually disrobes her beige top and long red skirt and slides into a new green outfit with bright circular patterns presented by Dorian. The narrator’s voice announces: “Oh, I’m in love with the most beautiful girl, her name is Sibyl Vane,” providing more context for the audiences.
A scene change sees the dancers walk into a horizontal line at the back of the stage, facing the audience. As they begin softly jumping in place, a sorrowfully beautiful piano melody from Beethoven’s “Emperor Concerto” starts, and the rectangular square of light in which they are positioned turns red, hinting at mood change.
Against this solemn scene, the splitter and splatter on the floor from the continuously dripping paint on the ‘portrait’ could be heard hitting the ground, the speed of the dripping corresponding to the hopping of Sibyl, who continues to persist jumping alone, while others watch on. Her jumps, exaggerated by the bouncing rims of her dress, also echo the rhythm of the recited English text.
Meanwhile, the almost identically dressed male ‘twins’ at the bench shake their hips to the voice of Lord Henry – the ‘bad’ influence towards Dorian in the novel. Cheng somewhat vulgarly caricaturizes them as being from the lower class of society; men who are used to squatting on benches rather than sitting properly.
The switching back and forth between romantic Western classical music and the loud and somewhat ‘vulgar’beiguan local music may seem confusing to some audiences, especially those unfamiliar with the novel. Yet, I believe both these threads represent sides of cultural influences that have filtered through the life of Cheng himself, just as the inclusion of an English audiobook of “Dorian Gray” was originally given to him by Lin Hwai-min (林懷民) to help improve his English.
Back to the narrative. Dorian’s fickleness made him detest Sibyl once she gave herself to him and he decides to break off with her. By the time he realizes his cruelty towards her and announces (through the voice of J. Patrick): “I have decided to be good and kind…I will marry Sibyl,” it is already too late. This transition is made through the switch to a jazzy music of Yegelle Tezeta’s “My Own Memory”, as the female dancer in red and green [Yang] leads the other three male dancers in a travelling unison phrase of weight-shifting steps, arms lifted but hands and heads dangling loosely. It is only later that one notices that the tragic Sibyl has quietly retreated to the far corner lying face down on the floor, dead, behind the now blackened ‘portrait.’ According to the novel, she had committed suicide after being deserted by the irresponsibly hedonistic Dorian.
A duet follows between Dorian and the female in the bright colored dress, who at times seem to portray an all-knowing seer, as in the opening prologue, and at others, steps in for another female character that Dorian could be involved with in a different relationship. In this particular seductive jazz music section, their sexy hip gyrations relates somewhat to the outrageous lifestyle depicted in Wilde’s story of Dorian’s later visit to various bars and clubs.
By now, the stage is lit in green, with just a small area in red, again, echoing the green and red colored dress worn by the leading female performer. The painter Basil, portrayed by the dancer in black, gradually begins to dip his finger into the pool of black ink collected around the ‘portrait’ and draws on the white floor. “I am an artist…”, says the narrator, reminding the audience of his role.
At this time, Dorian dances another solo, consisting of his hand pushing certain joints in his body which reacts to the point of initiation, as if he was being manipulated by an outside force. Various layered sound sources consisting of beiguan, the English audiobook excerpt, and other Western music reveal his confused inner state of mind. The narrator tells us that Dorian has gone into the attic to peek at his own portrait.
On stage, the terribly filthy and grotesque female dancer covered in dirty ink slowly moves away from the dark, sticky puddle towards the audience, while Dorian slowly retreats to the back, exchanging places with her. The narrator recites the concluding sections of the novel, relating how Dorian regrets his Faustian deal and tries to destroy his own portrait, but in vain. By now, the curtain near the front of the stage is lowered, leaving only a narrow horizontal strip for the sole ghostly figure, struggling to come forth towards the audience, as if in repent.
“Dorian Gray” is the first choreography presented by Cheng after his appointment as artistic director of Cloud Gate 2 earlier this year (2014). Cloud Gate 2 now holds up most of the responsibility of touring local venues with works by the younger dance generation, while Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (雲門舞集) tours internationally with Lin Hwai-min’s choreographies once premiered in Taiwan.
It was presented as the first piece of a triple bill to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the company. Also on the program were Huang Yi’s (黃翊) new version of “Floating Domain” (浮動的房間) and Bulareyaung Pagarlava’s (布拉瑞揚‧帕格勒法) “Yaangad” (椏幹, an indigenous word meaning ‘life’), a collaboration with indigenous singer Sangpuy Katatepan Mavaliyw and cellist Chen Chu-hui (陳主惠).
Cheng, now in his late thirties, has matured as a dance-maker following his professional dance career in Cloud Gate after graduating from TNUA’s College of Dance, where he already began to demonstrate his choreographic talents. His interpretation of “Dorian Gray” is by no means a literal dance adaption. In fact, as he said in various interviews leading up to the premiere, he felt some affinity with the various roles in the novel, be it the formerly naïve and gullible Dorian, the irresponsible Lord Henry, or the artist Basil himself. And dance works do reveal the personality of the choreographer, one side or another of his or her character. It is no wonder Basil did not want to exhibit his picture of Dorian Gray to the public. But I suppose it would not be realistic for a piece of dance to be similarly kept ‘in the attic’ and just be appreciated and marveled by the creator alone.
In retrospect, “Dorian Gray” can be viewed as an interesting combination of Cheng’s 2013 works, “On the Road” and “Blue Hour” (一個藍色的地方). It is certainly worth looking forward to what he decides to share with the audiences next.
Lin Yatin saw the April 18, 2014 performance of “Dorian Gray” by Cloud Gate 2 at the Novel Hall, Taipei, Taiwan.
David Mead’s review of the full first program of Cloud Gate 2’s Spring Riot 2014 season of which “Dorian Gray” was part can be seen here.
His review of “Oculus”, the second program of the season, is here.