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Formosa by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan | Review

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan — Formosa
Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan — Formosa

There’s a pleasant off-white colour that lights up the Sadler’s Wells stage as Formosa gets underway. Not the garish, strip fluorescent bright white light of a train carriage, but a welcoming shade inviting the audience in. To begin with, the 22-strong company move as though in unison: what can be heard, if one were to momentarily close one’s eyes, is the sound of an army battalion marching, all in the same direction, all at the same pace.

But on stage, people are going in different directions and at different speeds. It looks chaotic at face value, but it’s carefully choreographed – although the stage is very busy, nobody comes even close to knocking into anyone else.

Much later, there is provision for the portrayal of conflict and strife within the narrative, which is, again largely due to how well choreographed the production is, a delight to watch on a superficial level, although in another sense, it is disconcerting to find oneself being awed by a display of violence. But the show wants to give its audiences a taste of life in Taiwan, and, as I suppose it would be for almost anywhere else in the world, in order to provide an accurate portrayal, it is important to show the balance. The show deserves credit for doing just that.

It is difficult, if not impossible, not to remain engaged with a performance in which there is always something going on. The spoken narrative was both translated and poetic, which left elements of it open to interpretation, but the elegance of the language deployed was a good match for the dancing and movement. For the most part, it helped provide a narrative framework from which to comprehend proceedings.

Some universal themes abound – love and belonging, a desire to live in peace (as opposed to whatever the opposite of peace would be), and unavoidable confrontations. This is not, however, a show set in non-specific every place. Talk of rice paddies and monsoon winds may be unfamiliar to London audiences as much as baked beans and Coronation Street may be to the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan.

Some movements in the performance were somewhat faster than I would have expected: perhaps there is an attempt to make the show more palatable to the pacing Western audiences are used to. I suspect, however, the relative rapidity of the steps is simply director and choreographer Lin Hwai-min pushing his cast to do what they are physically capable of. A long fight scene closes with everyone on the floor, exhausted with all their energy expended and the sound of heavy breathing filling the auditorium.

At other times, however, the movements are frankly pedestrian. Nothing wrong with that, in this context: variety is the spice of life. The costumes are kept simple, with pastel colours that wouldn’t be out of place on Taiwan’s streets (or indeed London’s). Like many a good show, the best is saved for last. A magnificent portrayal of the sea’s eternal existence, assisted by a not-strictly-necessary video projection, sees the show building to a suitable crescendo.

In the on-stage chaos and order, order and chaos, local audiences on this international tour are able to see their own situation reflected. So, for us sat in Sadler’s Wells, all that disharmony could be representative of the Windrush scandal, Brexit, or both (or other pertinent issues). All things considered, Formosa is an admirable and thrilling dance experience.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Words have been used to communicate, to record and document. Words can be blurred through time. Record of history can also be erased.
In FORMOSA, words play a major part. Lin Hwai-min uses typefaces of Chinese characters as the sole material for projection design to create visual landscapes, made up mainly of names of mountains, rivers, cities and villages on the island. Towards the end characters, including Love, Forever and a refrain of “Ilha Formosa,” gradually fall apart into dispersed strokes and lines, all of which are swept away by waves of the sea, leaving a white, empty stage just as the production begins.

In addition to music, recorded reading of poems about Taiwan — its land, lore and people — completes the soundscape of FORMOSA. The following is translation of the reading in the production.

Section 1
The whirling ocean, Ilha Formosa (Beautiful Island).
Excerpt from “The General History of Taiwan” by LIEN Heng

My island is a leaf,
floating along the edge of the Pacific.
Some people say: It is a big whale.
But most love to say: It is a yam,
nurturing 23 million people like a mother.
I like this kind of saying.
I also like that it is a leaf.

Excerpt from “My Island” by LIN Fuan Chan

With an abundance of earthquakes, rumors and violence.
Yet the four seasons are like spring. The country prospers, people are at peace.
Excerpt from “The Book of Southern China—On Behalf of Gentleman A for Lady B” by CHEN Li

Section 2
The next spring and the one after
I will be standing in a rice paddy
Imagining you as a beautiful egret
Pure white garments, delicate heart
Now we sit between the paddies
Someone upwind is burning rice straw
Pale smoke wafts between us

Next summer and the one after
I will come to see waves of rice in the wind
See dragonflies thick in the sky
You will be in another world
And may never return

Excerpt from “Among the Rice Paddies” by YANG Mu

Section 3
Tall tassels at the water’s edge
Sweep the sky so blue
Tall tassels on the peaks
Sweep the sky so high
Then, the sky, so blue and so high
Has a name: Autumn

Excerpt from “Tall Grass Tassels” by Hwang Chun-Ming

Sika deer used to run wild here
Everything raced with the moonlight
But after the day dawned
The moonlight took away the Pingpu people
The clouded leopard ran into the mountains
Higher and higher
Until it went higher than
The moon and the sun

Excerpt from “Moonlight and Clouded Leopard” by Hsu Hui-chih

There are so many eyes in the sky.
One was, mom told me, my celestial eye
that would light the way for me until I die.

Excerpt from “The Eyes of the Sky” by Syaman Rapongan

Section 4
I like to take the morning train.
If I’m lucky, I can pass a school set in the midst of rice paddies,
while students do their morning exercise.
Jumping up and down in their red clothes against waves of green rice stalks
as the sun rises over the ocean.
It’s like music and painting – full of hope.

Excerpt from “Resolute Mountain, River of Hope” by Wang Wen-chin

All small towns have
their own bakeries and pharmacies
Jewelry stores and clothing shops
Theaters and daycare centers
They all have tow trucks and road junctions
All small towns have
Their own railway tracks and blind alleys
Buddhist temples and Christian churches
They all have their own old people
Cats, dogs and betelnut beauties
(Who stay quiet)
Starlings foraging in black cloaks
With elongated shadows
Small towns have their own orange jasmine plants and
Thorny vines, walls and bridges
Daybreaks and sunsets
Their own loves, desires and pains

Excerpt from “Small Towns” by CHEN Yu-Hong

It’s raining
In springtime it rains without warning
Betelnut trees stand like soldiers in rows
On the slopes graves are stacked in layers
In the paddies rice sprouts in neat rows
Drops of rain roll down my windscreen
Egrets take flight and land
Bright and pure white
Like snowflakes falling

Excerpt from “The Song of the Rift Valley”by CHIANG Hsun

Mt. Guanyin lies by the Tamsui River
The sun sets, like an infant
Cradled by Goddess Guanyin’s knee
Thus it is. Those who have been here
This is their eternity –
May the Tamsui River forever be
The sunset over the Tamsui River forever be
Mt. Guanyin forever be
Forever be, forever be

Excerpt from “Sunset on the Banks of the Tamsui River” by Chou Meng-tieh

We are in Aowanda
The most beautiful sweet gum trees
Standing in the highlands at 3,000 feet
With mountain peaks behind us
Among a forest of Taiwan firs
Against cold northeast monsoon winds
We blossom in brilliance
Late autumn’s most passionate
and most charming of smiles

Excerpt from “The Turning of the Sweetgum Tree Leaves in Aowanda” by Xiang Yang

Probe ships call the arrival of the mullet
and fishing boats gather off the coast.
Fishermen wait with their eyes wide open
watching the sea closely.
When the water turns from blue to dark red
a large school of mullet has arrived.

Excerpt from “Son of a Fishing Town” by LIN Wen-yi

When the monsoon season arrives, clouds begin to gather and descend
and thunder and lightning follow.
Farmers of Lanyang hurry to harvest their first season crop
while their neighbors plant their second.

Excerpt from “Release” by Hwang Chun-Ming

Speaking in Minnan, Hakka,
Shandong, Shanxi, and Hebei,
In the languages of the Atayal, Puyuma,
Rukai, Tsou, Thao, Saisiyat, Paiwan,
Papora, Hoanya, Babuza,
Bazeh, Taokas, Siraya,
Kavalan, Ketagalan…
Beautiful sounds. Beautiful island.
Beautiful Taiwan. Beautiful languages.

Excerpt from “Song of the Island—For the Children of Taiwan” by CHEN Li

Section 6
Traffic forecast for the next two days:
“Hsichih, Baisha, Yingge, Linbian, Nuannuan, Chunri, Wanli, Meinung.
Jianshi, Jiji, Tongxiao, Wuri, Fanlu, Badu, Shuishang, Wufeng.”

Excerpt from “Microcosmos” by CHEN Li

What children of Yilan learn about first is water:
Rain water, well water, river water,
lake water, sea water, and spring water.
Each kind of water has its own pattern.
Spring rain falls in soft, dense veils,
summer brings thunder and lightning.
With over 200 rainy days every year,
Yilan can write a book on rain.
People from Yilan are most likely born on a rainy day,
and hear the song of rain on their deathbed.

Excerpt from “The Plain that Rain God Protects” by CHIEN Chen

Finally, one spring day
Our children will read the following news:
Migratory birds are returning north
Drivers traveling along the Tamsui River
May not blow their horns

Excerpt from “Hope” by LIU Ka-shiang

Section 7
That winter, rumors were confirmed by rivers
Liwu River, Jhonggang River
Daan River and rivers in unnamed valleys
Formosan deer were barred from
the river by man’s fortifications
Firearms were seen in icy, choking waters
Scattered strands of hair could never find
a home for their souls

Excerpt from “Pulling Back the Veil of Silence” by Walis Nokan

Section 9
The whirling ocean, Ilha Formosa (Beautiful Island).
Excerpt from “The General History of Taiwan” by LIEN Heng

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan — Formosa
9 – 12 May 2018
Sadler’s Wells
Rosebery Avenue, London, EC1R
https://www.sadlerswells.com/

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