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Dancing chi
Cloud Gate’s Moon Water at BAM

NEW YORK — Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan claims many Asian and non-Asian influences in its work. The dancers study ballet and Graham-based modern dance, and there’s evidence they’ve worked with tai chi, Chinese opera, trance meditation, and even a bit of Japanese butoh in their exquisite 1998 stage tableau Moon Water, which they performed at Brooklyn Academy’s Howard Gilman Opera House last week. But the thing is, when a choreographic idea assumes major force, it supersedes whatever influences have propelled it. Lin Hwai-min, Cloud Gate’s founder/artistic director and choreographer, shouldn’t be considered any more derivative than Paul Taylor or Twyla Tharp.

What Lin has developed, at least in Moon Water, is a movement language that serves and identifies his work. The dance grew from the Buddhist meditative practice of tai chi, but what I found extraordinary about it was that it doesn’t look like tai chi exercises. Instead, the movement molds itself around tai chi’s underlying principles: the idea of energy flowing through the body (chi), cycling smoothly out and back into the center; the gradual process by which the body’s weight redistributes itself to achieve balance and change; the clarity of focus that makes a connection between the mover and the space. Dancing from this perspective is created internally, not projected outwardly, even though it can be organized in visually stunning patterns. It looks and feels different from making shapes, rhythms, and pathways across the floor.

In form, Moon Water is a plotless work for 18 dancers. Lasting a little over an hour, it is accompanied by selections from the Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello as recorded by Mischa Maisky. The stage is bare, the dancers wear loose white silk trousers and nude tops, and they move in a subtly changing environment created by light (Chang Tsan-tao) and design (Austin Wang). A large, tilted, cloudy mirror panel hangs over one part of the stage, reflecting but transfiguring what goes on below, like a ceiling fresco by Tiepolo. The black floor is painted with a white spattered line that looks sometimes like a trail and sometimes, as reflected in another mirror panel that’s later uncovered in the black background, like a circular bay with waves lapping at the shore.

The environments created by these visual effects don’t change the dancing. It’s the other way around, as if the intensity of the dancers’ action could make the difference between day and night, between breathing and drowning.

The piece begins with a single man (Tsai Ming-yuan) who rises and sinks in place, balancing and stretching in continuous asymmetrical adjustments. He’s birdlike at times and squatting heavily at others, like a toad. A woman appears (Huang Pei-hua) and they gradually approach each other. For brief moments, they seem to mirror or double each other’s movement, but most of the time they’re contrasting figures, rhythmically attuned, so that the space between them becomes as articulate as their bodies.

Groups of people appear, moving in the collective unison that was called "breath rhythm" by the early modern-dance choreographer Doris Humphrey. Other soloists and small groups emerge from the group, so organic a part of them, you hardly notice a separation is taking place. Nothing so conventional as a love scene occurs, but men and women dance together, touching an arm, breathing and changing on a single impulse, rising, lifting, circling together.

One woman (Chou Chang-ning) solos, making endless big and small circles around herself, all different, and another woman (Sheu Fang-yi) seems to be pulling herself in and out like taffy, growing more and more agitated, until she suddenly drops to the floor and is quiet.

The music exists almost independent of all this, except that certain suspensions and cadences coincide, and then you realize that some deeper current is running under everything.

Water starts to trickle slowly along the floor — it’s visible mainly as a glint in the overhead reflecting cloud. Women are moving slowly across the water. One drops suddenly and rolls in it, sending a splashing arc against the black background. More people appear. Five couples lie on their sides, reaching up with a sickled foot or a splayed hand. There’s no sound except the trickling water.

With mirrors across the whole back of the stage now, 14 persons move across the water, stopping in poses like sculptures in a garden. The cello repeats the first musical selection (the Sarabande from Suite No. 5), only it seems slower than the first time. The dancers leave, moving ever more slowly. At last there’s nothing but the space and the fading light.

Issue Date: November 28 - December 4, 2003
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