Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, UK; February 21, 2014
One always knows that a Cloud Gate performance will draw on an eclectic mix of dance, tai-chi and drama and “Nine Songs” is no exception. It uses ancient Chinese songs but then works in shamanistic rituals from India, Japan and China to create a disturbing work that mesmerises the audience in from the outset.
The set is effectively simple, using flats that can be closed or open and that are painted with the lotus, a symbol of eternal life. The pit is filled with water on which float more lotus flowers and from which, a dancer in a red dress refreshes herself. This creates a classic scene of serenity which is soon shattered when a circle of dancers in white thrash sticks against the floor. Is the girl in the red dress a sacrifice or a goddess? The scene is by turns violent and ritualistic, rather like “Royal Hunt of the Sun”. She is tossed from one to the other and flings herself around, her red dress flailing the air.
The vocalisations in the background are deeply disturbing. A basso profundo, monotone drone underpins the remaining vocals in a manner that seems sure to rend vocal chords and that seems to well up from the very depths of the earth itself in seismic shivers. The ancient world evoked is a frightening, insecure place.
The dancers’ masks are at once priest-like and animalistic but also help to create a sense of timelessness.
Suddenly, into the primitive maelstrom of chanting bodies a man rides through on a bicycle. The anachronism tugs us into the here and now. Are the rituals continuing? Is this still a part of our own time and place? Who is the man urgently pedalling and where is he going? Another walks through with a suitcase like an eternal refugee, forever fleeing, forever seeking.
Every level and dimension of space is filled greedily with dancers on each other’s shoulders, rolling on the floor, leaping through the air or cleaving the air with slow movements, arms like wooden spoons wading through treacle. One dancer stands on two dancers’ shoulders then ‘walks’ forward, planting each foot on a shoulder with consummate control and balance. No empty acrobatics here, but every gesture and movement infused with intent.
Then dancers run on waving banners and we seem to have been plunged into a demonstration. Two men whizz through on bicycles, one is knocked to the ground and the stricken bicycle swept away. The man with the suitcase re-appears and shuffles across the stage with his heavy burden. It could be Tiananmen Square in Beijing or Independence Square in Kiev. The rituals no longer those of primitive beings but the rituals of class conflict.
The second half takes us through the seasons, the rituals now a part of the eternal round of birth and death, harvesting and reaping. The circle is closed and the dancers bring on hundreds of lights, creating a path that winks and flickers into eternity.
As ever with Cloud Gate, words become reductionist in what is a very visceral experience. Every ounce of movement serves the narrative and the meticulous rehearsal makes the performance seem energetic but deceptively effortless. There is as extraordinary story connected to this piece which had been “retired” from the repertoire when the Company premises were struck by fire. Sets and costumes were destroyed but the gods’ masks from “Nine Songs” remained intact. This quirk of fate has enabled us to see this remarkable piece in its new incarnation and how privileged we are for the experience.