Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan hold the power to transport their audience completely. The company’s unique style of movement, along with Lin Hwai-Min’s vivid choreography and powerful design choices in Nine Songs, create an entire world pervaded by ancient ritual and traditional aesthetics. Based on a classical cycle of poems by Qu Yang dating back 2,000 years, Nine Songs transformed Sadler’s Wells Theatre to such a degree that the orchestra pit became a lotus pond for the weekend.

Honouring the Dead © Cloud Gate Dance Theatre
Honouring the Dead
© Cloud Gate Dance Theatre

A lone voice rings out in an ancient Taiwanese ritual chant, Greeting the Gods, as a businessman carries an oversized briefcase past a pool full of lotus blooms. A circle of white-clad Celebrants sit with backs poker-straight and whip bamboo sticks against the floor while a female Shaman (Huang Pei-hua) dances herself into an ecstatic frenzy. She looks almost unearthly, dressed in red with snowy skin and flowers in her long black hair, as she calls the Sun God (Yu Chien-hung), who descends wearing only an elaborate mask and a golden G-string. A raw, animalistic battle ensues between this formidable pair as the celebrants look on, with the Sun God eventually overpowering her in a series of quasi-sexual poses. The human celebrants follow suit and give way to the base demands of the flesh. Sacred ceremony is overcome by sex as as they strip off their white robes and quickly descend into a heaving, tangled morass of nearly-nude bodies.

To the accompaniment of Tibetan Buddhist tantras, the humans are led astray by the Gods of fate: they writhe, twist and bend in almost superhuman contortions. Female dancers are controlled by male partners, momentarily flailing like ragdolls and then lifted overhead, twisted into animal-like shapes and sculpted like wire. These dancers have astounding control of their bodies, developed through thorough training which combines Eastern practices like Qi Gong, martial arts and ancient breathing techniques, with Western contemporary dance.

Huang Mei-ya as Goddess of the Xiang River © Cloud Gate Dance Theatre
Huang Mei-ya as Goddess of the Xiang River
© Cloud Gate Dance Theatre

One of the most powerful characters, for me, was the Goddess of the Xiang River (Huang Mei-ya), whose subtle articulation of her body made her appear truly supernatural. Her every movement was shot through with a combination delicacy and strength, so that she appeared equally as powerful in stillness as in animation. The God of the Clouds (Chen Wei-an) danced on the backs and shoulders of his carriers without touching the floor once, and the lone figure of the Mountain Spirit (Tsai Ming-yuan) danced against a large green moon, his face frozen in a permanent silent scream.

There is a sprinkling of humorous moments, such as the various appearances of the suited businessman, civilians on bicycles amidst the other-wordly action, and a man on rollerblades waving a flag for the God of the Clouds. These contemporary references point, perhaps, to the discordance between day-to-day life in buzzing business-oriented economic centres like Taipei and a yearning to maintain the vast traditions of Taiwanese heritage. Traditional references, however, are not all specific to China. Mongolian throat singing, North Indian classical flute and Javanese gamelan were among several powerful pieces of music.

Twinned with a new work, Rice, created to honour the company’s 40th anniversary, Lin’s decision to revive Nine Songs is due in part to a ‘miracle’ of resurrection. Following the 2008 decision to take Nine Songs out of the company’s repertoire, a fire devastated their studio, props, costumes and archives, yet left the deities’ masks intact.

Bodies fall to the ground in death, with a lone figure caught in a pair of headlights shining directly into the audience before he, too, falls. The red-clad shaman’s efforts do nothing to revive him. The dead become standing pinnacles of light and are honoured with little flames set at their feet, as graves might be. Candle by candle, the company undertake the slow creation of a river of light that meanders toward the audience, a gentle reminder perhaps, that people have immense powers of creation without the need for gods and spirits. 

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan's Nine Songs is an incredibly powerful piece of dance, drawing on ritual and ceremonies rooted in ancient tradition yet given an undeniably contemporary overhaul, which provides a wealth of stunning imagery and food for thought.

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