Nine Songs and company class with Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan.
Sadler’s Wells, London – February 21 & 23, 2014
Nine Songs is a set of poems about exotic spirits and deities that is credited to the famous Chinese poet Qu Yuan, who lived around 300 B.C. This revered piece of Chinese literature has been interpreted in paintings and has influenced many writers since, but I have never seen it performed in dance, as the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan had done, in a work by the same name.
A women in a long red dress shook her body violently while her fingers, trembling, reached out toward the cavernous space on stage. Her face, chalky white, was exaggerated grotesquely by black-lined eyes and bright red lips. Lurching in heavy lunges and contorting in crude but defined gestures, she seemed in a power struggle with a warrior-like male character who wore a mask splayed around the rim with what looked like tree branches. In another scene, a women in a trailing white robe wore a white mask with narrow slits for the eyes. She posed her hands in delicate and demure gestures as she sat downstage, behind the orchestra pit that was temporarily transformed into a lotus pond. Meanwhile, the unified ensemble amplified the mood of each scene like reverberating water rings and advanced and retreated like waves. In jarring disconnect, a man in a business suit glided indifferently through some scenes on a bicycle.
The movement was unlike any other choreography I had seen. It had gestures often seen in Chinese opera, phrases that were smooth and grounded like martial arts, and its emotive dramatizations of Chinese folklore reminded me of Martha Graham’s interpretations of Greek mythology. It reflects the artistic influences of its choreographer, Lin Hwai-Min, the founder and artistic director of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre. Growing up, Lin was exposed to the arts and cultures of Taiwan, China and Japan. While Lin was in the United States pursuing a degree in creative writing, he studied at the Martha Graham School in New York, and upon his return to Taiwan, formed the troupe in 1973, amidst a time of political change when Taiwanese people were searching for an identity separate from China. Nine Songs premiered in 1993, following Lin’s travels to Southeast Asia where he was inspired by that region’s folk traditions. Though Lin takes inspiration from local and international experiences, the dancers of the company, as explained to me by Associate Artistic Director, Lee Ching-Chun, are all Taiwanese, except for one dancer who had lived in Hong Kong before moving to Taiwan. “It is important that the dancers have an understanding of the Taiwanese culture,” Lee said.
I joined one of the company’s morning classes, held in a large studio inside Sadler’s Wells, where the company was performing for one week in London. The hour-long class, which practiced components of the company’s dance vocabulary, began with meditation. “The dancers must know how to breathe,” Lee told me in an earlier conversation, and throughout the class she reinforced the importance of the breath in all of their movements. As I sat on the ground among the twenty or so dancers, I felt a sense of unity from breathing in the same rhythm. That consciousness of breath helped me understand the subtle rhythm of the Qi Gong exercises that followed. With our bodies warmed up, Lee led us through ballet exercises, including tendus, pliés and ronds de jambe, and modern dance phrases of torso contractions and extensions that took care to preserve a natural alignment in the back. All this built up to the most dynamic segment of the class, when the dancers traveled across the studio in martial arts-like phrases and jumps that moved swiftly between energetic exertion and still balances.
The dancers adapted nimbly to each dance language, but the cumulation of all represents their aesthetic. It’s a harmonious dynamic of sharpness and fluidity, groundedness and weightlessness, that takes more than physical stamina to achieve. Rather, it is an expression of a philosophy, which comes through their bodies as naturally as, well, breathing.