Founded in 1973 by choreographer Lin Hwai-min, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre was Taiwan’s first contemporary dance company. Though initially based on Graham technique (like so many companies from that decade), their training and style has since broadened considerably to include ballet, Chinese opera, martial arts and Tai Chi, the last two in particular leaving their distinctive imprint on Moon Water (1998), recently shown at Sadler’s Wells.
The title, in fact, refers to the ideal state aimed for in Tai Chi practice: “Energy flows as water, while the spirit shines as the moon”. It is also inspired by a Buddhist proverb: “Flowers in a mirror and moon on the water are both illusive”. The piece is suffused with images of watery creatures by moonlight, and the floor is painted with a whorl of white brushstrokes – froth spiralling in a vortex, or a galaxy swirl against a night time sky. The dancers are in white, with loose billowing trousers, and the low-key lighting is occasionally amplified by mirrored panels that are unveiled above or at the back of the stage. The score – solo cello suites by Bach – adds to the sense of hush.
The piece begins gently, a lone man centre-stage rooted to the ground, moving as slowly and steadily as petals unfolding. He rises onto one leg, poised like a crane, or furls and unfurls his fingers like tendrils. His dance sets the style for the whole work: a low, earthbound centre of gravity, controlled but limber motion, serpentine coils.
it goes beyond contemplative towards somnolent
The piece develops a series of tableaux, expanding on but not departing from this opening material. Groups of dancers move in disciplined unison, like the swell of a tide, while others enact solos or duets in counterpoint. But despite the variations in pace and number, the dance begins to feel monotonous, each episode introducing more of the same. Though beautiful to watch, it goes beyond contemplative towards somnolent.
I was jolted back to alertness by a moment of drama, a solo woman spinning in agitation, reaching and retreating as if caught between opposing desires. But that surge of tense energy soon calmed and slowed, and it was not until the last section that I was engaged again. A trickle of water seeps across the stage, transforming it into a broad lagoon, and the backcloth is lifted to reveal a wall of mirrors. The dancers appear like lotus flowers or water birds, their multiple reflections shimmering and glistening as they exit with infinite slowness, leaving the mirrored stage reverberating with the memory of the fading cello.
With its moonlit lake and ghostly white costumes, Moon Water seems like a very particular version of a ballet blanc. Yet the piece is more striking for its imagery and conception than for its choreography. Although the 16 dancers are excellent, and impress with their suppleness, poise and discipline, the dance seems lacking in substance and development – not enough, at least, to sustain interest through 70 minutes. Instead, Moon Water leaves a trail of impressions which, beautiful as they are, fade and disperse like ripples in water.