Cloud Gate Theatre of Taiwan, Barbican Theatre
P3, University of Westminster
Cloud Gate Theatre of Taiwan is not new to the UK dance scene. Yet, as stressed in an inflated, self- celebratory programme note, Wind Shadow marks a neat move away from the performance formulae seen in their previous productions. Created in 2006 by Lin Hwai-Min in collaboration with the visual artist Cai Guo-Qiang — who played a significant role in the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics — the work strives to be an example of ‘moving installation art’. As such, it comes across as a series of moving pictures that both surprise and shock the viewer with moments of incomparable lyricism and powerfully unsettling imagery. There is a constant game of chiaroscuros, enhanced by the presence on stage of dancers all clad in black, who ‘play’ the shadows of other dancers, against a varied background of visual ideas and pure old theatre magic. But despite the perfectly calibrated movements of the artists, their intriguing person/shadow interactions and the continuous theatrically striking imagery, the performance never fully takes off, and slips very quickly into a mere kaleidoscope of movement, costumes, props and special effects — including the same use of laser projections as were first seen in Harry Kupfer’s memorable 1991 production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold in Bayreuth.
By the time the darker themes take over with more or less explicit references to everyday horrors, the whole construct has long deflated; neither the black rain/snow that overwhelms the action nor Cai’s literally explosive gunpowder-based visuals, with their political and social metaphors, rescue the feeble, repetitive dramaturgy. In my view, the decision to move away from the Chinese aesthetics that Cloud Gate Theatre has become known for was not a wise one. And I would have preferred something more radical and dynamic to open the new Dance Umbrella season.
Luckily, Paul-André Fortier’s Cabane — which could also be referred to as an example of choreography-meets-installation — provided the provocation I, and other Dance Umbrella diehards, longed for. Set in a variety of places — I saw it at the University of Westminster’s P3 — Cabane draws on the latest trends and developments of post-modern performance-making. Yet there is no sense of déjà vu, as even near-predictable ideas are reworked, twisted and presented here in an unexpectedly quirky and provocative way. Central to the work are the actual shelter/cabin, after which the piece is titled, Robert Racine’s superb sound-making (an outstanding performance on its own), Fortier’s choreography and dancing, and Robert Morin’s projections. The perfect fusion of these elements stimulates myriad interpretations, according to the individual response of each viewer. I found myself comparing the multi-functional cabin to the hut of the Russian Baba Yaga, regarded by anthropologists and historians as the door on to life’s aftermath or to any other dimension mortals fear and are not given to know. Fortier’s elegantly reiterated movements were utterly mesmerising, as if part of a hypnotic ritual or trance dance, contrasting with and complementing the more spirited, sound-making physical performance of Racine. And even when the action seemed to have reached its zenith and exhausted all the possibilities offered by the various media, the two artists surprised the audience with a subtle yet effective coup de théâtre, ending on a vibrantly spirited note that prompted a more than well-deserved ovation. In my view, much as blockbusters and well-established dance realities are important, it is events like Cabane that encapsulate the essence and nature of Dance Umbrella, as it is through creations like this, and all the forthcoming ones, that new choreographic discourses are created.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 17, 2009