Nine Songs

Choreography by Lin Hwai-min
Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan
Sadler’s Wells

Cloud Gates's Nine Songs by Lin Hwai-min Credit: Liu Chen-hsiang
Cloud Gates's Nine Songs by Lin Hwai-min
Cloud Gates's Nine Songs by Lin Hwai-min
Cloud Gates's Nine Songs by Lin Hwai-min Credit: Liu Chen-hsiang

Lotus flowers float in a stream across the orchestra pit, loom large in Ming Cho Lee’s beautiful new set, symbolize the rebirth of a much-loved production, the 1993 Nine Songs, an enactment of a cycle of classical Chinese poetry, Qu Yuan’s fourth century BC poems of gods and seasons, life and death.

After a fire destroyed Cloud Gate’s dance studio and almost all their props, costumes and archives in 2008, Lin Hwai-min, founder, artistic director and choreographer of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, was moved to revive Nine Songs, though in 2007 he had felt it was time for it to be put away.

The gods had smiled: the resurrection of Nine Songs, a shamanistic meditation and hymn, is down to fate, the miraculous survival and indestructability of their masks in the fire.

The masked deities, gods and goddesses of the Sun, Fate, Clouds, Mountain Spirit, and the Xiang River, perform their rites to ritual songs of Taiwanese tribes, to the sound of Tibetan bells, Mongolian throat singers, the courtly music of Japan, North Indian classical flute and the percussive summoning up of the dead. The soundscape of chant and resonant song is hypnotic.

Impish, imperious, the gods hold sway over their white robe clad celebrants, whose bamboo canes beat in rhythm on the ground, quiver in unison, a background to the gods’ antics. But the modern world enters in.

A Magritte man with suitcase wanders across the stage. A boy on roller skates bearing a long flag races through, a couple of cyclists whiz by, and the inscrutable man returns on a bike, his suitcase on the back. A fusion of the past and present, the weight of cultural heritage and belief systems, the references woven into our collective lives…

A puffed up, agile, piston-legged comic Cloud God, who walks on the backs and shoulders of two men, his feet never touching the ground, could be Hanuman and Hermes. Dancers, stripped of their white robes, writhing and shaking in a Hieronymous Bosch tangle of limbs, could be from The Rite of Spring.

Though the sinuous Goddess of the Xiang River, her body flowing like water, could only be from the East, out of Noh drama and T’ai Chi, their patience and poise. The lotus fingers, the body poses, the stillness require infinite control. Waiting by the river for one who never comes, she is borne away, her spring flowers wilting.

An abundance of bodies (twenty-eight dancers) write the pages of the ancient tales, and stage beautiful pictures, as gods battle, seduce, distract and lead mortals astray and unto death.

Elemental forces play, seasons pass, the Mountain Spirit dances a troubled solo under a pale green moon, his mouth in open grimace, and the dead are honoured. A roll call of names and candles, hundreds of candles light the stage in a pathway to the stars.

Candles brought on two by two till they fill the stage, a mesmerising process, as is the two-hour-long evening. From dynamic movement to a serene peace, which almost sent me adrift, a visually stunning contemplative experience, how I envied those who understood or knew the anchoring words of the songs.

A choir sings and birdsong is heard. The cycle of life is complete. But what a life on the stage: acrobatic and fluid, each particle of the body under control, just the shifting of weight has a beauty to it, arms like fronds in the air, feet planted in the ground.

A fusion of the East and the West, Lin Hwai-min studied modern dance in the West, and Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham are great influences. He is also a Buddhist, and his dancers study Qi Gong, meditation, calligraphy, martial arts as well as modern dance and ballet.

Acclaimed worldwide, Cloud Gate is celebrating the company’s fortieth anniversary year at Sadler’s Wells with the old and the new. Rice, which premièred in Taipei last November, follows next week.

Reviewer: Vera Liber