Watching Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan in “13 Tongues,” two impressions dominate. The first is that the dancers use their bodies like calligraphers, producing a constant trailing of elegant lines that linger in the mind’s eye like brushstrokes. The second impression is that, as a group, the dancers roil like mercury around the stage, a soloist or duo pulling away only to be sucked back into the mass via forces of atomic attraction.
A program note explains that Cloud Gate’s members train in contemporary dance, ballet, internal martial arts, and Qi Gong. They often undulate from a low crouch to a powerful standing extension, foot flexed. Lin Hwai-min, who founded Cloud Gate in 1973, has told the Western media that because the people of Taiwan have historically been pressured to be Japanese, and then Chinese, he wanted to create a movement style that would be the company’s own. He succeeded, and the effect, touching down at Berkeley’s Cal Performances during a national tour, was mesmerizing. That said, sights that mesmerize can also lull you to sleep. (More on that in a bit.)
The company brought a 2016 creation by Lin’s recent successor, Cheng Tsung-lung. Cheng grew up in Tapei, the son of a father who sold slippers in the Bangka/Wanhua district, and “13 Tongues” is named after a local street artist who, in the 1960s, would shapeshift to embody a cacophony of city characters. Having never visited Tapei, I cannot judge how faithfully “13 Tongues” evoked its atmosphere; my companion for the show, who has traveled to Tapei, felt it did not, but he spoke, admittedly, as a mere tourist. Those unfamiliar with the Tapei influences would more likely think of this as Cloud Gate’s “black light/fluorescent costumes dance.”
The 13 dancers begin in all black robes, and the lighting by Shen Po-hung is intentionally, overwhelmingly dim. My friend tried to discern an arc around a theme of non-conformity and its consequences, as individuals kept ending up curled on the floor and then reintegrated into the group. I didn’t feel significance in this and instead was drawn to the gradual overlap of the material and spiritual worlds.
About one-third into the 65-minute dance, a woman emerges in a robe that glows fluorescent pinkish-red and green, echoing Ethan Wang’s projections; after many lifts and much climbing upon backs so as to appear walking on air, her corporeal self disappears, and the group is left with the glowing costume—pure spirit? Later, as the dance ramps to its climax, each dancer, one by one, becomes cloaked in the electric costuming, as though the air whirling between them has infused their bodies with energies from beyond. Above them, on the scrim, a beautiful red and cream koi fish swims. The ultimate peak of the work is a flash of light—the dancers finally illuminated!—before the projections wash busily over everything. The whole theater, it seems, has been possessed.
In some of these final effects and others, Cheng draws freely on contemporary theatrical strategies familiar to fans of companies like Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva. “13 Tongues” launches with the house lights still bright, the dancers at the lip of the stage in a line, ringing bells, so that they viewer feels her reality is being warped, drawn into the stage. Electronic sounds intensify, seeming to pull us into a vortex. As in the works of Batsheva, the music by Lim Giong mixes folk chants with pop influences, ear-teasing synthesized textures, and episodes of pounding rhythm. As in many Batsheva works, in certain episodes the dancers shout and scream. All of this is effectively immersive. (Cal Performances could have cranked the music louder, in my opinion, to make it more so.) But because “13 Tongues’” whole trajectory depends upon darkness, it is difficult to discern the dancers’ faces, or to connect with any specific interpersonal drama. And several segments, such as a section of dancers suddenly popping out of a swirling mass, play far beyond the point of novelty. Hence: mesmerizing but sometimes sleep-inducing.
In Taiwan, Cloud Gate gives free performances to crowds as large as 30,000. (Fifty-thousand viewers came for the last performance under Lin’s directorship in 2019.) In Berkeley, Zellerbach Hall was half empty. Audiences are still making a gradual return to Cal Performances offerings, and the Bay Area media had lent almost no publicity. This was a shame. The small but mighty viewership offered an immediate standing ovation.
One hopes that Cal Performances’ deep pocket donors will not falter in keeping the presenter fully resourced while the performing arts recover from the pandemic. As the people of Taiwan know, the arts are a powerful ambassador. It is one thing to read in the news that the island of Taiwan is technically part of China and yet has its own government (including a woman president). It is quite another to see their dancers and become curious about the day-to-day lives of the superhuman people you see on the stage. Is this political manipulation? No doubt there are political aims. I’ll gladly accept this for a reprieve from the current hellscape of American self-absorption.