As the second tier company connected with the venerable Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, Cloud Gate II showed both strengths and weaknesses in its repertory program Saturday at the Luckman. They seemed, more often than not, a talented and inexhaustible company of dancers hemmed in by concept driven choreography.
The best of the evening was choreographer, Huang-Yi’s Wicked Fish, a large ensemble piece that magically created the effect of schooling fish with an organic ensemble of dancers that constantly changed shape, density and direction. Out of that ensemble, the choreographer draws his dancers who recombine in multiple partnering sections. The cleverness in the choreography is that those partnering ensembles appear without warning and, as suddenly, disappear. The movement is complex and rather than partnering in the usual context it asks the duos, sometimes in multiples, to move as a single unit or organism. The music for Wicked Fish, Iannis Zenakis’ Shaar (1983) for string orchestra, was unfortunately played at excessive volumes. This is not how this music should sound, and choreographers should be forewarned that no amount of boosting the volume is going to replace real music. But the peculiarities of the score, particularly in the dense clustering of the string parts, did find an ideal resonance with the intent and scale of the work. Less successful was the diminished lighting by Li Chien-chang, which gave the piece a gloomy look and often masked the details of the movement. The choreographer danced in the cast of Wicked Fish.
The center piece of the evening, PASSAGE, choreographed by Bulareyaung Pagarlava, plays as a high concept theater dance piece in which death claims one of the dancers. The work never really ignited into actual dance but relied on an improvising style and a number of visual deceptions and theatrical tricks as a lone female dancer is claimed by a quartet of forces from an underworld. The music leaned on the liturgical works of Bach (particularly the Agnus Dei from the B Minor Mass) with a collage of African, chanted tribal soundscapes in an incongruous mix. The figure of Death (the characters were not identified in the program notes) powdered Butoh style, and carrying a suitcase and an umbrella stalked the stage in perpetual slow motion. While powerful as an image, the character remained distant and without a potent sense of menace. As theater it was the evening’s most dramatic statement but it felt underwhelming as a distillation of death or any real rite of passage.
Ta-Ta For Now (also Huang-Li), was a forgettable work for five dancers and a set of chairs. It fell flat as comedy and at the same time made more than a little hash out of the last movement of Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto as well as the dancers, themselves, who made the improvised style movement look clumsy and unspontaneous. Tantalus (choreographed by Wu Kuo-chu) is a ballet of physical gesture in which the ensemble of eight dancers becomes obsessed with shared movement that spreads virally from one dancer to the next. They are dressed as everyman business types and at the outset are fixed in the center of the stage by a square projection of light. Lengthy sections of a stylized running in place approximated the notion of a worldly rat race but the notion was dealt with a heavy hand. Much of the work takes place in silence with vocal effects supplied by the dancers. The recorded accompaniment included two works by Meredith Monk, The Tale and The Walking. It proved far smarter both as dance and as humor than Tantalus.
Concluding the program was The Wall (2009) with choreography by former Cloud Gate dancer, Cheng Tsung-lung. It too was darkly lit but used a more varied vocabulary of movement than the evening’s other works. It only vaguely lived up to its title, mostly in formations which used the dancers linked in phalanxes. Brief flashes of blistering contemporary technique punctuated the movement which felt too dependent on repetition and large scale unison expression. The cast of twelve dancers gradually shifts from all black to all white costuming as the piece progresses. The Wall was set to the music from the first movement of Michael Gordon’s string sextet, Weather. The choreographers joined company members on stage for the final curtain call.
The program offered little information about most of the music or the performances of the recorded versions used on the program. And while the choreography seemed the weakest part of the Cloud Gate II repertory program it was Wicked Fish that made the evening’s lasting, and most vivid impression.