The pioneering Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan – the first and, so far, only Asian Company to be voted Outstanding Company in the UK National Dance Awards – is at a watershed in its history. Formed in 1973, the company has been led by its founder, the choreographer Lin Hwai-min, for almost half-a-century but he has recently been succeeded as artistic director by Cheng Tsung-lung (who has led the Cloud Gate 2 offshoot since 2014, having been a guest choreographer since 2006). This double bill of pre-existing works by both Cheng and Lin therefore seemed to exemplify a fascinating bridge between the past and the future.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan in <i>13 Tongues</i> © Lee Chia-yeh
Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan in 13 Tongues
© Lee Chia-yeh

The programme opened with that glimpse into the future, albeit that Cheng’s 13 Tongues was premiered in Taipei back in 2016 (prior to Lin’s decision to retire).  It is said that Cheng grew up selling slippers on the roadside in Taipei’s oldest district, Bangka, and this work is in homage to a street artist, known as “13 Tongues”, who performed in and around Bangka during the 1960s, in part remembered through the stories passed on from Cheng’s mother.

It is a long work that abounds with colour, from the psychedelic, cartoonish, fluorescence of the 11-strong cast’s costumes enhanced through art, lighting and projection designs, to striking imagery: notably in the form of a giant koi carp that randomly swims through the backdrop and disappears into the flies or the wings. These projection designs cover the proscenium space but also spill over into the sides of the auditorium. Cheng’s direction and choreography mixes a dream world that unlocks a boundless spiritual potential, with his own memories of the bustling street life of Bangka, into a heady cocktail of realism, mystery and wonderment. 

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan in <i>13 Tongues</i> © Liu Chen-Hsiang
Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan in 13 Tongues
© Liu Chen-Hsiang

The work opens and closes to the sound of a handbell being rung by one of the performers, and there is much spoken text from the beginning (it does not appear to be in Mandarin but some form of local dialect), all exhibiting the soundscape of street life. It continues into a musical composition by Lim Gong that is embellished by Taiwanese folk songs, the rustic form of nakashi (tea parlour songs popular in both Japan and Taiwan) and electronic music. This musical potpourri gels together seamlessly and meaningfully. Although the dancers break into solos and other smaller groups, this is largely an ensemble piece and the dancers often move with the disciplined unity to resemble a single sentient organism. 13 Tongues continues beyond a couple of apparent false endings without adding much in the subsequent overtime. Nonetheless it is a work of charm with strong visual appeal.

Lin’s Dust predates this earlier work by a couple of years, having premiered in Taipei, in November 2014. It is unusual in terms of being a choreographic response to ideals inspired by a European theme, in this case directly relatable to Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet no. 8 in C minor, which was the composer’s elegiac response to the bombing of Dresden (written after a visit to the East German city, fifteen years after the end of the war when it still bore witness to that horrific destruction).   

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan in <i>Dust</i> © Liu Chen-Hsiang
Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan in Dust
© Liu Chen-Hsiang

Lin has responded to this best-known of Shostakovich’s string quartets as if it were a Requiem (he discovered during his research that the composer had intended it to be a Requiem) and his twenty dancers are presented as wide-eyed, open-mouthed, dust-covered survivors of this smoke-filled landscape: their costumes stained black and dusky brown, they stagger and crawl from the smoke, trying to cling together in mutually protective clusters, collapsing and struggling to regain their feet. It is perhaps a little too literal and, with their emotionless stares and wide-open mouths, it is a shame to say that the modern, Western perception of these beings is more likely to be that of The Walking Dead than the intended representation of stumbling, barely-living survivors of mass genocide. Nonetheless, likenesses to popular zombie TV series aside, this is still a striking representation of Shostakovich’s haunting music in visual form and the final moments of the human survivors being swallowed up in the smoke has a very powerful and dramatic sense of theatre. Lin will be a very hard act to follow but the baton seems to have been passed to his own chosen successor in a seamless and disciplined transition.