Review: Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan - Nine Songs - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 21 & 22 February 2014
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 24 February 2014

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan - 'Nine Songs'

Performance reviewed: 22 February

Lin Hwai-min established Cloud Gate Dance Theatre some 40 years’ ago and if there are a few of his works that might be regarded as signature – a complex allusion since his choreography often resembles Chinese calligraphy in human form – then Nine Songs is sure to be amongst them. Created in 1993, it had been regularly performed for some 14 years when Lin decided that it should be retired. Shortly after the intended final performance, the company’s HQ was ravaged by fire. Although mostly everything was destroyed, by some quirk of fate, this debacle did not include any of the face masks for the various deities celebrated in the cycle of Qu Yuan’s poetry, which is represented in Lin’s choreography. Given that the work is a series of homages to these Gods, Lin was sufficiently moved by this “miracle” to decide to revive the work and – with a brand new set by the original award-winning designer, Ming Cho Lee – it was returned to the stage in 2012.

Nine Songs contains many of the elements that we might associate with Tanztheater, an allusion recently reinforced by the performances of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, here at Sadler’s Wells, earlier this month, which includes bringing the natural environment into the theatre and making a leit motif out of the bizarre. Here the former is represented by a long, thin, rippling pool of water replete with lotus blooms, taking the place of the orchestra pit; and the latter is mostly seen through a solitary figure in western dress, complete with trilby, dark suit and tie, carrying a large, dark suitcase, who wanders randomly across the stage; but, it is also present in the amusing entry of a roller-skating man carrying a staff from which billows a long white flag and in the occasional sight of bicycling extras. There is even a processional ending where the whole company honours the dead by creating a massive floor-based sculpture comprising a swirl of candles that looks like it is lighting a highway to the heavens; although the programme tells me that it is, in fact, designed to represent a winding river stretching out into a starry sky.

Qu Yuan’s poetry was written some three centuries Before Christ and is regarded as the zenith of classical Chinese literature. It is clearly difficult for any westerner (without an academic appreciation of Qu Yuan’s work) to understand the references, although we can certainly appreciate the profound depth of imagery which proliferates through the individual pieces, not least in those remarkable masks that inexplicably survived the blaze. There must be a similarly profound reason why a work entitled Nine Songs seems to have only eight episodes but, if so, it has escaped me.

The opening sequence is about Greeting the Gods and the closing episode (in which the dancers assemble the candle-lit river) is Honouring the Dead. In between there are five sections that provide an Homage to a particular deity and one Homage to the Fallen, which is the penultimate piece. A cohesive thread joined the first three parts (before an interval) whereas the episodic nature of the five pieces that followed the interval was more distinct. These later works are said to follow the four seasons although such references were not always clear.

Greeting the Gods introduced us to the central Shamanic character, a woman (Huang Pei-hua) in a bright red dress slashed to reveal her left breast (albeit discreetly covered in flesh-coloured material). She performs a frenzied, contorting dance as if being shot simultaneously by many machine guns, while the corps of dancers (dressed in white robes) beats long, thin, ultra-flexible bamboo sticks against the floor. It is indicative of an effective symbolism through dance that repeats in many different ways throughout the work.

My favourite individual sequence was the Homage to the God of the Clouds where Chen Wei-an performs his steps on the backs of two attendants, maintaining poise and balance while stepping high and low as the movement of his carriers dictates. It is like watching someone on a circus rodeo ride comprising two giant aerobic step machines throwing up a series of random heights at each turn. Earlier, Huang Mei-ya had performed with similar acrobatic balancing skills as the Goddess of the Xiang River, carried across the stage balanced on two poles stretched across the shoulders of her attendants, while many metres of shawl billowed out behind her like the river she represents. I was also moved by the poignancy of Homage to the Fallen in which performers die over and over again as a list of names is read out representing heroes (from ancient Chinese history to modern Taiwanese times) who sacrificed themselves to save others. At some point in this anthology of the heroic dead, our man in the modern suit incongruously enters again, carrying his ubiquitous suitcase.

Not all of the sequences are so captivating. One solo, the Homage to the Mountain Spirit, has Tsai Ming-yuan reflecting the turning of autumn into winter with a long, anguished, sequence of lateral, largely floor-based movements with his mouth open in a permanent unheard scream. Like the candle-strewn ending, it was just a bit too long for me.

Even if the intent is not always clear, the music (stretching across an eclectic range of tribal songs from Taiwan, Tibetan chants, Javanese Gamelan, North Indian flute and Imperial Japanese Court music) is always fascinating and the imagery is often arresting. Lin’s choreography possesses its own design maxim, his bodies regularly shaped into angular curves and spirals, requiring considerable strength and skill from Cloud Gate’s ensemble of outstanding performers. Nine Songs is not always a comfortable experience but it possesses a peculiar purifying quality where dance theatre and music is woven into an exhibition of moving art installations.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan in Rice on Wed 26 & Thu 27 at Sadler’s Wells this week

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He writes for,, Dancing Times, Dance Europe and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and of the National Dance Awards in the UK.

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