Novel Hall for the Performing Arts, Taipei, Taiwan; April 26, 2014

David Mead

Cloud Gate 2 in Wu Kuo-chu's 'Oculus'. Photo © Liu Chen-hsiang

Cloud Gate 2 in Wu Kuo-chu’s ‘Oculus’.
Photo © Liu Chen-hsiang

The scene owes much to tanztheater. The dancers are huddled in a group, one holding a white balloon. The stage is bare save for a leafless tree, standing stark against a backdrop of powder blue sky and cotton-wool clouds. The balloon is released and floats upwards. Out of sight, it bursts and falls, causing the dancers to scatter; all that is except for Lee Yin-ying (李尹櫻), as naked as the tree apart from her bright red briefs. And so begins our journey through twelve scenes that is Wu Kuo-chu’s (伍國柱) “Oculus” (斷章).

Wu, who died from leukaemia in 2006 at the appallingly early age of 36, is a much admired figure in Taiwanese dance. It was while studying theatre at what is now Taipei National University of the Arts (國立薹北藝術大學) that he decided he wanted to be a dancer. After graduating, he continued his studies at the Folkwang Hochschule in Essen, which influenced greatly most of his work, before becoming Dance Director at the Staatstheater Kassel, where “Oculus” was first danced.

‘Oculus’ is Latin for ‘eye’, although it’s more common meaning is as a circular or eye-shaped opening in the centre of a dome. Wu’s widely acclaimed “Oculus”, made in 2004, presents a bittersweet look at humankind. Like Lee and the rest of the cast at the beginning, who all return equally near-naked, it strips away everything to get at the core of everyday life.

“Oculus” is seventy minutes full of contrasting emotions: laughing and crying, happiness and frustration, hopes and fears, love and loss, brightness and sadness. Tightly and well-structured, playfulness and depth come together in a near-perfect combination. Even in the sadness, though, there is an overriding sense of hope running through the dance, and that even in the darkness, there is always hope; daylight and sunshine can and will return. Wu and the dancers aim directly at the heart and score a bulls-eye.

Cloud Gate 2 in 'Oculus'.  Photo © Liu Chen-hsiang

Cloud Gate 2 in ‘Oculus’.
Photo © Liu Chen-hsiang

It’s a colourful work in almost every sense. The costumes, everyday shirts and trousers for the men, sensible dresses for the women, are a riot of pinks, yellows, greens, oranges, greys and blues. The body language is equally vivid. Expression is free and uninhibited. A repeated motif sees human desires represented by endless scratching. Frustration is apparent as the dancers, in silence save their gasping for breath, repeatedly and noisily thud into the floor, their every attempt to rise thwarted.

“Oculus” is full of action. There’s lots of scurrying around, dancers coming and going all the time. Patterns form and dissolve with ease. But shadows stalk the work. The occasional glance at the backdrop reveals that the sunny blue sky and white clouds are slowly turning a menacing dark grey. Courtesy of a huge fan in the wings, an storm brews and leaves start to fill the stage. They remain for the duration, becoming a metaphor for the obstacles that confront us in daily life as the dancers trudge and slog through them.

For all the busyness, the most striking scene, certainly the most moving, is one filled with stillness. As the ominous black cloud that has been slowly building finally fills the backdrop, the dancers stand stock still for a good two minutes. Standing apart from the group is Yang Ling-kai (楊淩凱), head bowed as if standing over the grave of a loved one, which given the place Wu has in the heart of Taiwan’s dance community may be rather close to how she felt. It’s a truism that less is often more. Here, nothing is everything. It’s a brave choreographer that tries this, and it’s a master choreographer that pulls it off. I’m sure his theatre training helped a lot, but Wu, and the Cloud Gate 2 dancers, do it brilliantly.

Yang’s subsequent solo is full of grief. She reaches up and out to someone who has gone. There’s more anguish as the rest of the cast look up, arms raised, fists clenched, before running again ans again acros the stage. ‘Why?’ they seem to be screaming silently. Among them, one woman strides purposefully across, head down. As pained as we are, life must go on, is the message.

Cloud Gate 2 in 'Oculus'.  Photo © Liu Chen-hsiang

Cloud Gate 2 in ‘Oculus’.
Photo © Liu Chen-hsiang

Elsewhere there are occasional Bausch-isms, perhaps most notably seen in repetition. One scene sees one of the men edge towards one of the women, who in turn shifts slightly away. The game repeats and slowly develops. There’s always the suggestion that although moving away she actually wants him to reach her. But does he really want to? We’re back to doubts and desires. It might be a little drawn out but it’s certainly effective.

Wu may sometimes use his musical choices in unusual ways, but you can see there’s always been a lot of thought behind things. Those choices include Bizet; German Baroque composer, Johann Pachelbel; Italian popular singer-songwriter, Franco Battiato; Italian folk singer and composer Angelo Branduardi (particularly effective and emotion-filled); and Yiddish songs from singer-actor Yaacov Shapiro.

At the end, emotions are mixed. Yes, there are smiles – and lots of coloured balloons – but there’s a lingering sadness, thoughts of a talent lost and what might have been. Wu’s choreographic career lasted a mere nine years. But his spirit lives on, and at least he left us with this memorable creation. It is a masterpiece.

Following Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s recent season at London’s Sadler’s Wells, the company announced that not only had they been invited back, but that Cloud Gate 2 had been invited too. Details still have to be worked out, but “Oculus” alongside maybe a shorter work by Artistic Director Cheng Tsung-lung (鄭宗龍) would be a marvellous introduction to this excellent ensemble.

After the disappointments of the first Spring Riot programme, how good it was to see last week’s moody teenager of a company back at their all-round best.