Novel Hall for the Performing Arts, Taipei, Taiwan; April 18, 2014

David Mead

Cloud Gate 2 in Tseng Chung-lung's 'Dorian Gray'. Photo © Lee Chia-yen

Cloud Gate 2 in Tseng Chung-lung’s ‘Dorian Gray’.
Photo © Lee Chia-yen

I’ve seen a lot of enjoyable shows by Cloud Gate 2 (雲門2) over the years. Even so, I suppose coming away from a performance disappointed was almost certain to happen sooner or later. But that didn’t stop it being a big surprise when the day finally came. And not only disappointed, but also drained after a very long evening (we finally escaped after three hours) of often difficult dance.

This year sees Cloud Gate 2, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s (雲門舞集) sister ensemble, celebrate its 15th anniversary. Opening proceedings, a short film showed the company at work: in communities and small settings, on tour in New York, and with family and friends. It was full of joie de vivre. It was full of the brightness and the joy of dance. It was full of what the company is best known for. What a shame there wasn’t even a hint of that in new Artistic Director Cheng Tsung-lung’s (鄭宗龍) ambitious – perhaps too ambitious – debut Spring Riot (春鬥) programme.

Cheng’s “Dorian Gray” (杜連魁) makes extensive use of text from Oscar Wilde’s novel. Using spoken word in place of music is an approach riddled with difficulties; not least the expectation that what the eyes see should relate directly to what the ears hear; not something, of course, that has to follow. Even so, the results can be outstanding. That was not the case here

In the book, and spoken during the piece, Basil Hallward (the artist of the picture) says to Harry (its owner), “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.” Cheng’s work partly follows just that line. Some of what he shows are his personal responses to the literary work, not a dance representation of it, but elsewhere the symbolism is clearer, and there’s even some literal acting out of the spoken word. So is it supposed to be narrative or not? Good question. Lots of ideas and images come and go; too many. The outcome is like one of those dishes concocted by a TV cookery show contestant who didn’t know when to stop tossing in the different ingredients.

Questions abound, even for those who could understand the text, read as it was in English, or are familiar with the novel. Some of Cheng’s responses are obscure. Why is one woman at the beginning in Chinese dress? Who or what were the six dancers standing in a line, bathed in red light representative of, and why were they jumping up and down on the spot? Why does one continue after the others stop? Some images were more obvious. Having the excellent Lin I-hsuan (林宜萱) as what I read as a symbol of the painting itself is a clever device, although I wonder just how much the audience got it. She is first seen as a mysterious beauty in a black, red-lined cloak. But, just like the picture, she ages. As she stands stock still, ink drips on her and forms a pool at her feet, symbolic of the beauty and youthfulness that leeches away from the canvas, until eventually she becomes haggard; near grotesque figure.

Cloud Gate 2 in Huang Yi's 'Floating Domain'.  Photo © Summer Yen

Cloud Gate 2 in Huang Yi’s ‘Floating Domain’.
Photo © Summer Yen

The movement ranges in style, as indeed does music that runs from traditional beiguan through Beethoven and Saint-Saens to a jazzy interlude from Tom Waits, but doesn’t always gel with a voice recording that lacks the depth and quality of intonation one would expect. Still, there are some excellent danced scenes, not least an emotive and very expressive bare-chested male solo by Luo Sih-wei (駱思維).

As an experiment in using text, “Dorian Gray” does have positives, but the confusing mish-mash of overlaid text, music and movement that it closes with in many ways sums the whole piece up.

Most successful of the three pieces is Huang Yi’s (黃翊) “Floating Domain” (浮動的房間). Although described as a reworking of his beautiful and very successful 2010 work of the same title, it has been so extended and has so many changes and deletions that it’s effectively a totally new piece and really should have a new name.

Huang shows different scenes or memories from a life. Or is it different lives? The opening comes directly from the previous work. On a bare stage apart from a single light bulb and a telephone, Chen Li-ya (陳麗雅) falls softly and repeatedly against a ‘wall’ created by the other dancers, who catch her as if she was collapsing into a mother’s arms. Soon, though, an unexpected sharp right turn takes us deep into some very dark film noir territory.

Parent and child, male and female, love and anger, they are all here, and all presented extremely cinematically. Ou Yen-ku’s (歐衍穀) moody, dim lighting adds enormously to the power and potency of the dance, although I’m sure many in the audience might question whether it would be better defined as acting. It is close to the boundary, and as always a personal view.

Cloud Gate 2 in 'Floating Domain'.  Photo © Summer Yen

Cloud Gate 2 in ‘Floating Domain’.
Photo © Summer Yen

There is plenty of aggression in tension filled scene after tension filled scene. There’s an ongoing sense that something unpleasant might happen, although quite what is always uncertain. Some of what does transpire is uncomfortable, especially the violence by men towards women (this is definitely not a work for the youngsters). Central to much of the action is that telephone, the sole connection with the outside world, and whose ringing is cleverly denoted by the cable being juggled on the floor. There’s also some innovative use of puppets as young children. They are made to move so lifelike you almost do a double-take to make sure they are not real. While at times cute, at others they seem almost as menacing as some of the real life characters.

About forty minutes in comes a night-club scene. As part of the narrative it may well need to be there, but the change of lighting in particular breaks the spell rather. Although there are some beautiful subsequent scenes, especially a poignant one featuring death, it rather peters out, the previous feeling and atmosphere is never really being regained.

As a combination of dance and story presented in a filmic way, this “Floating Domain” has much to commend it. It’s strong stuff, though, and at fifty minutes, it’s maybe ten too long.

In “Yaangad” (椏幹, and which means ‘song of life’), Bulareyaung Pagarlava also combines art forms, although here it’s traditional indigenous singing with cello and contemporary choreography. Working alongside him, Pinuyumayan singer/songwriter Sangpuy Katetepan also sings in each performance.

In an interview before the premiere, Bula (as he is usually known) asked that people, “Come listen to my dance.” And in many ways “Yaangad” is more about the music than the dance; music that it has to be said, is strikingly atmospheric and beautiful. The mix of cello, played live by Chen Chu-hui (陳主惠) and traditional song is so good you would imagine they were natural bedfellows.

It’s all stunningly lit by Shen Po-hung (沈柏宏). Beams of gold light bounce off the performers and the equally golden sand on the stage floor. It’s like looking at a masterpiece on canvas. But what of the dance itself? Well, it’s largely very slow and, especially at this late stage of the evening, sleep inducing. There were times when I felt like I was watching one of Lin Hwai-min’s (林懷民) slower, majestic pieces for Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, but in slow motion. Moments of contrast are few, although I was stirred by Yang Ling-kai (楊淩凱) being continually and violently tossed between two men in an effective Bausch-like use of repetition for emphasis. Later, there is much tossing and hurling of the sand (my mind flipped back to the rice in “Songs of the Wanderers”), before everyone slowly makes their way off.

Cloud Gate 2 in Bulareyaung's 'Yangaad'.  Photo © Lee Chia-yen

Cloud Gate 2 in Bulareyaung’s ‘Yangaad’.
Photo © Lee Chia-yen

And so, at half past ten, we made our weary way home. The length of the programme was emphasised by the fact that, as a whole, it was rather harder going that the usual Cloud Gate 2 offerings, even for a well and truly seasoned dancegoer like me.

But maybe one shouldn’t be surprised. While Bula has made humorous pieces, it’s hard to escape the feeling that all three choreographers have similar dance making tendencies, and that even his heart, like that of the others, is in the deeper, darker stuff. As the portrait did for the artist in “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, does Spring Riot 2014 show the “secret of their soul”?

Is this more difficult approach to new work to be the way forward for the company? Time will tell, but it is true that dance companies naturally reflect their leaders, their personal and choreographic personality. A headline in the Taipei Times said “Cloud Gate 2 grows up,” but do I want it to, at least like this? Maybe it’s having a recalcitrant teenager moment. Fingers crossed.

I also find myself asking what has happed to that original idea of Cloud Gate 2 providing a platform for young choreographers. For a few years now, Spring Riot choreographers have been drawn from a very narrow group, none of whom can be described any longer as particularly young or emerging. Cheng, Huang Yi and Bula are all excellent and usually reliable dance-makers, but it does seem to have become a little bit of an exclusive boys club. All three came to prominence because someone was willing to take risks, and it would be nice to see that happen again. Cheng has said that he wants to continue the tradition of working with young choreographers (and, indeed, other artists). Let’s hope so, because there are promising emerging dance-makers around, some from different backgrounds; and even some, whisper it quietly, who are female.

In an experiment, another change for this Spring Riot saw the usual excellent printed programme replaced by a single A4 sheet that gave cast details and production credits and not much else. The company felt this was enough. I disagree strongly, especially for a programme such as this. There was a ‘proper’ programme, but available only on-line – and not even directly from the company website but via a document sharing portal that it is necessary to register with before you can download.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the move, it’s a subject worthy of debate and discussion. I’m told that feedback has been “mixed.” I can easily imagine some would be very much for it. Maybe I’m old-fashioned (although I’m certainly no technophobe) but, for me, printed programmes that tell you about the works, the dancers, have nice photos and give more information besides, are very important.

Digital-only programmes bring issues too. At the opening of the show, we are asked to turn off our phones. But the company forces us to turn them on if we want to read the programme in the theatre. So which is it to be? Pdf files can be hefty (this one is 11Mb), and more difficult to read. You certainly can’t flick through them or look things up quickly in the same way. And you are denying some people easy access. There are archival questions too. Mind you, the move did stop people trying to read with the light from their mobile phones during the performance (hoorah!). Even this cloud has its silver lining – at least until the audience realises they can download and read it on them.

Spring Riot 2014 continues with Wu Kuo-chu’s (伍國柱) “Oculus” (斷章).

Details of Taipei and tour performances at www.cloudgate.org.tw.