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By Moonlight

As the lights dim in Sadler’s Wells, I am struck by how dark the theatre I’m sitting in is. These few moments before a show begins create a unique situation of near complete trust on the audience; there’s no light, natural or artificial. And then “Lunar Halo” begins—sharply. An arched body beams onto stage under a stark white light: moonlight, here to guide us.

Performance

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan: “Lunar Halo”

Place

Sadler’s Wells, London, UK, November 30, 2023

Words

Róisín O'Brien

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in “Lunar Halo.” Photograph by Chang Chen-chou

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In “Lunar Halo” from Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, size, perspective and time are artfully manipulated in a richly abstract show of light, bodies, pixels and sound. A lunar halo, the programme tells us, is a special astronomical event that through history has been associated with portents and change. With music from Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós, this is an evocative work from relatively new director Cheng Tsung-lung (who took on the post from founding director Lin Hwai-min in 2020).

The piece begins slowly, moving between connected, though not overtly narrativised visual scenes, that gradually build in intensity throughout the performance. We start primordially, watching linked, spine-like fused dancers. The effect is impressive and trippy, as your brain struggles to compute what the eye is seeing: is that many dancers linked together, or one strange, insect like creature? The dancers dissemble, and we move from here into acrid colour, one dancer slowly climbing stacked bodies to touch a hovering screen: blue flames flare out from his touch in a Michelangelo-esque connection between humans and powers above us.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in “Lunar Halo.” Photograph by Liu Chen-hsiang

The first act takes some time to get moving, as movements depicting communal gatherings, curiosity and discovery are worked through. However, once the piece’s play with different screens of various angles and shapes starts to take off, “Lunar Halo” finds its footing. Particularly striking is the appearance of one long thin screen, that features a video of a still naked man gazing down at the shuffling dancers. He looks out somewhat benignly but is also removed from their struggles below. It’s a striking, totally theatrical experience where concepts of wonderment and awesome scale are made literal through innovative staging. The filmed dancer is then, in stop-motion fashion, covered in paint, and becomes statue like. I am struck by the passage of time; of how things that might have once been encountered or told as meaningful stories, are then carved into stone, to eventually fade out of relevance. 

From here, what is represented on the screens starts to distort and fragment; profiles slide into view, disconcertingly long thighs drop from above. At one point, a reaching hand coming down from the ceiling turns into a pressing fist. Cave like drawings are sketched; flashes of intense green appear. Are those traffic sounds we hear?  The dancers continue amongst the digital imagery with athletic determination, their tasseled costumes and long hair streaming behind them. While they physically connect with each other through seamless lifts and circling partnering, there’s a disjoint in the joints that adds a nice messiness to their actions. The grandiose (but not pompous) soundtrack from Sigur Rós is completely enmeshed in the world, complementing the visuals with open, glacial like reverberations to intense drumming and haunting vocals. 

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in “Lunar Halo.” Photograph by Lee Chia-yeh

We end suddenly with warmth: a burnished orange circle peers out through a smoky stage into the audience, one dancer shuddering underneath as it fades away. Is it a blood-moon? An ominous setting sun? “Lunar Halo” invites you into a complete audio-visual experience of dense symbolism, distinctively holding both modern and ancient impressions. If it doesn’t quite always hold a sustained attention, it nonetheless gifts the audience with its own powerful imagery to take back out into the cold winter night. 

Róisín O'Brien


Róisín is a dance artist and writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. She regularly writes for Springback Magazine, The Skinny and Seeing Dance, and has contributed to The Guardian and Film Stories. She loves being in the studio working on a new choreography with a group of dancers, or talking to brilliant people in the dance world about their projects and opinions. She tries not to spend too much time obsessing over Crystal Pite.

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