Founded in 1973 by Lin Hwai-min, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre was the first contemporary dance company in Taiwan – or any Chinese-speaking country. Lin’s highly distinctive contemporary style has roots in his international training – in Chinese opera, American modern dance, Japanese and Korean court dance – and his company has found considerable international success.
Wild Cursive is the final part of a trilogy based on the idea of calligraphy. As often with Lin, the piece is beautifully lit and visually elegant: black ink seeps down long paper banners that hang over the stage, trailing and pooling into abstract patterns. Characteristically, Lin’s choreography is more about mood than drama: the 12 episodes, running unbroken over 70 minutes, are like an anthology of free verse, alternately light or intense, fleeting or sustained. But the style of movement marks a departure from previous works. It keeps those distinctive Cloudgate qualities – the hypnotic blend of contemporary, martial arts and tai chi, the mesmerising stillnesses, the control and the flow – but in Wild Cursive Lin has considerably broadened his dynamic range. Just as his inspiration was ‘wild calligraphy’ – freeform, expressive – his writing for dance, though always carefully crafted and meticulously detailed, nevertheless feels carefree, even liberated.
Throughout, the calligraphy image is apt. In inky black costumes, the dancers seem almost to write upon the air. A curving swoop of the torso is ornamented by a flourish of the legs, a rush of scribbling motion is punctuated by sudden stops and flicks, as casual and as precise as a signature. The dancers spring from impossibly low crouches into twisting airborne leaps as if wilfully ignoring a baseline; their legs stab the air like accents over characters, their arms change from watery brushes to burnished steel nibs in the space of heartbeat.
Such varied, intricate movement commands attention; but so does Lin’s equally varied composition, which intersperses ensemble numbers with solos, duets and trios, and tight unison with spacious groupings. And he’s good at tieing the looser configurations within an overall framework; his writing is never messy. Some moments are particularly striking: silhouettes of five women behind paper banners, like ghosts haunting a lone woman in front; one woman mysteriously trailed by a line of others, like a funereal procession; a sudden clustering of waving arms like a sea anemone. A couple, distinct and separate, seem mysteriously linked by tides of energy that flow between them; a woman moves to centre stage, on guard, in a fierce, combative solo that seems to fight the air around her.
Sound and light are integral to the effects. Chang Tsan-tao’s bold, deceptively simple lighting design is often midnight blue, but sometimes burns to a brassy yellow, turning the paper banners into columns of a golden temple. And the soundscore, by Jim Shum and Liang Chum-mei , adds a dense layer of moods and images: hints of birdsong and gongs, thunderous rain, pebbles washed by a swell of sea.
Despite those many moods and the constantly flickering dynamics of the dancers, the piece has a curiously static quality, almost as if each section were a design rather than an action – and the result is strangely meditative. There is no forward drive, no narrative thrust to these episodes, and so for some viewers, their force waned as the sequence of episodes unfolded. Others – myself included – found themselves happily hypnotised. For just as written characters have their own character – light or heavy, regular or free, soft or hard – the dance conjures its own characters without need for plot. Enter its world, and Wild Cursive feels timeless.