Cloud Gate Dance Theatre review – swirling tales from Taiwan

Lyndsey Winship

Forty-seven years ago, a man who knew next to nothing about choreography founded Taiwan’s first professional dance company. Nearly five decades on, Lin Hwai-min is a legend in his native country (50,000 people turned out to see one show last year) creating a distinctive style of movement based on classical, modern and Chinese folk dance, meditation, martial arts and even calligraphy.

Only at the end of last year did Lin step down as artistic director, aged 72, passing the mantle to choreographer Cheng Tsung-lung, and this programme presents work by both men. Cheng’s 13 Tongues demonstrates beautifully the extraordinary, elemental quality of the Cloud Gate dancers, energy coursing through their butter-soft, titanium-strength bodies, limbs curling like tendrils of smoke.

The piece is based on Cheng’s memories of his childhood neighbourhood, its chaotic street life and a local storyteller, Thirteen Tongues. It has the feeling of something both ancient and modern, the black-clad dancers singing folk songs before the appearance of a magical superhero in fluorescent frock. You can only conclude that Thirteen Tongues must have been a swirlingly meandering, tangential storyteller, as the hour-long piece flows and circles and takes random turns (a koi carp enigmatically appears) and never quite arrives.

Lin’s Dust is a much more focused, literal performance. Inspired by its score, Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 8 in C minor, a piece written in war-ravaged Dresden, Lin looks in horror at victims of war and persecution, man’s inhumanity to man. Here are the exiles, the wretched, the powerless, faces smeared with dirt. They cower together, they beg and plead, they stumble and crawl along the ground.

Related: Cloud Gate avengers: the band of elastic superheroes who transformed Taiwan

At one point the dancers kneel in a line and, one by one, they reach up and fall, their bodies fanning out like toppling dominoes. It’s the kind of formation you’d see slickly done in a musical, but here all we see are brief moments of hope immediately extinguished. Dust is a slow, pessimistic slide into the dark, yet Lin often lets the music speak loudest and, caught by a brightly dancing rhythm or unexpectedly sweet violin, it’s possible to find beauty amid the horror.