Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan
by Carmel Morgan
January 29, 2010 -- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Eisenhower Theater, Washington, DC
“Moon Water,” choreographed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan’s Lin Hwai-min, is many things. For example, it’s a meditation as well as a dance. Whatever its nature, it is undeniably beautiful to behold. Like the moon and water of its title, the work is strong, pure, and profoundly rooted in life itself. While watching it, I couldn’t help but get lost in the flow. And that was a wonderful experience.
How often does a performance completely transport you? The sacred marital art, Tai Chi, washed over me, almost literally, as the stage eventually filled with water. Sitting back, I was tempted to close my eyes for a bit just to listen to the lovely sound made by the water as it trickled into a nearly invisible trough at the edge of the stage or was flung in arcs of droplets by the swing of a dancer’s arm or leg. It was like being treated to a Zen water feature, but with dance as an extra dimension.
The dancers all wore thin white wide-legged pants designed by Lin Ching-ju. The women had nude colored leotards; the men were bare-chested. You could clearly see the muscles and bones of the dancers as they moved. In Chang Tsan-tao’s lighting design, the skin of the dancers positively glowed. The set design, by Austin Wang, consisted of a white foamy-looking swirl on the floor, which resembled a calligraphic swoosh of a spinning galaxy, and a wall of angled mirrors at the back of stage that reflected, like the water below, multiple images of the dancers. In addition to the fabulous sound of water, selections from J.S. Bach’s “Six Suites for Solo Cello,” performed by Mischa Maisky, accompanied “Moon Water.”
“Moon Water” began with a single dancer, Tsai Ming-yuan, in a deep squat. Slowly, he unfurled himself, dropping in and out of the light. His knees were often bent, and his arms carved and pushed and swept at the space around him as if the air were weighted. It appeared that he was stretching upon awakening, but more than merely going through morning exercises he seemed to be headed to another world. With this introduction, he brought us along on the journey.
The solo became a duet with Huang Pei-hua. At times, they mirrored each other’s movement. Each frequently balanced on one leg, the other leg arched gracefully behind. More dancers joined, and some dropped, ending with a total of fifteen. I never saw a single wobble. The dancers exhibited incredible balance and intense concentration throughout the work. They executed the sections of unison perfectly, down to the curl of their toes and the rise and fall of their chests as they breathed.
Much of the movement repeated. After all, repetition is intrinsic to both meditation and the martial arts, which inspired the creation of “Moon Water.” I found that I didn’t care if my mind wandered now and then during the 70-minute piece. Slipping in and out of focus seemed a fine activity for me to enjoy from the comfort of the balcony. The dancers, however, looked as if they were meditating while moving. This amazingly disciplined group of dancers never lost focus.
In some ways, life is about repetition, too. Certainly there are daily rhythms, patterns we learn to follow, natural cycles, our own pulse. “Moon Water” recalled all of this. I felt a connection to life, as well, in the relationship the dancers shared with the ground. Asian dance forms, unlike ballet, emphasize our ties to the earth, not flights into the air. With so many deeply bent knees and sunken pelvises, “Moon Water” evoked the pull of gravity and reminded me of its effect on our bodies.
In the middle of the work, perhaps to keep us awake, choreographer Lin had a couple holding hands, which was surprising, given that the dancers rarely touched. Other surprises came. Sharp, high kicks suddenly replaced the low crouches.
If Bach’s music has an interior life, it seemed the dancers were dancing it. They didn’t dance to the music, exactly, they danced about it and translated its mood. I felt an underlying sadness, but also a sense of hopefulness. For some reason, I was reminded of a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, struggling to get somewhere new.
The water seeped out onto the stage so gradually that you couldn’t tell when it arrived. Out of the blue, it seemed, dark puddles appeared. Almost comically, the dancers, who had been so elegant earlier, began splashing and splooshing the water around. Rather than being gimmicky, the presence of the water served an artistic purpose. With the addition of the water, the lighting and mirrors became even more magical. Unexpected images of the dancers flew up from all angles. Dancers walked atop their reflections. A new universe opened up. The audience hushed in reverence of the sounds. An occasional kick from a dancer lying in the water, like the reflexive jerk of a frog’s leg from the touch of an electrode in a science lab, sent water splattering about.
In a brief question and answer session after the performance, Lin Hwai-min said that the audience is like calligraphy paper, which absorbs the dancing like ink. Of all the many things it is, “Moon Water” is definitely absorbing!