As October’s spooky season inched toward its end, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan unearthed a silver lining with its magnetic dance performance in Zellerbach Hall. After the 2016 performances of “Rice,” Cloud Gate, presented by Cal Performances, returned to Berkeley to perform “13 Tongues,” a dazzling piece from the company’s artistic director Cheng Tsung-lung.
Cloud Gate, named after the oldest known dance in China, is a company that trains its dancers not only in formal ballet and modern dance but also in meditation, martial arts and the breathing exercise known as Qi Gong. The dancers’ versatility was unmissable in the demanding performance of “13 Tongues,” and their unflappable stamina throughout the hour-long piece was steadfast, like cars chugging on a steam engine train.
Tsung-lung designed “13 Tongues” as a reflection on his upbringing in Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan. While watching the dance, however, the inspiration of childhood did not appear obvious.
“13 Tongues” eluded definition like a trout squirming from a fisherman’s hands and returning to sea. In flashing moments, its message seemed obvious, like the shoe has finally dropped. But just when the picture seemed to reveal itself, the dance introduced a new motif or embraced a new form — one that contradicted or challenged the neat nametag one could mentally press upon it. The effect baffled and intrigued as the dance became one that was best understood when its overwhelming and voracious form washed over.
“13 Tongues” abstracted the city and its luster, depicting tarmac streets as glowing blacklight and urban life in beams of neon striped robes. Lim Giong, who penned the score, traversed diverse musical traditions from Taoist chants to techno-futurism to folk tunes. The energizing music reiterated phrases, patterns and pulses that seemed to swallow its listeners whole, immersing the audience in a dreamlike world.
The piece opened with one dancer ringing a bell as the other 10 dancers slowly trickled onstage. With 11 dancers, Tsung-lung used the odd number to sculpt in-groups and out-groups. Fragmentation was often used to render soloists as outsiders who were wont to occupy the stage’s fringes and corners, a separate sphere from the collective.
After moments of splayed-out tension, the ensemble’s convergence arrived like a tray of desserts, evenly spaced and impeccable to watch. The company showcased exquisite partner and group work. In an early sequence, for instance, two male dancers carried a female dancer in neon robes by her arms, her body forming a T-shape; suddenly, her leg flew back and forth like a grandfather clock’s pendulum, a marvelous display of flexibility.
Figuratively speaking, Tsung-lung’s vocabulary of movement was challenging to understand, but perhaps more difficult to speak. The piece exuded violent undercurrents of anguish; dancers lunged and crumpled and collapsed, their limbs a tangle of erratic and manic motion. In one instance, a dancer spun in a squatted position as if on an axis for an extended period of time, betraying no symptoms of dizziness when he moved to rejoin the group. In a different kind of athletic feats, “13 Tongues” also relished passages of stillness, challenging dancers to balance in difficult poses indefinitely, like a surrealists’ version of the last scene in Nikolai Gogol’s play “The Government Inspector.”
In defamiliarizing and abstracting motion, “13 Tongues” played with natural elements, most notably water. Giong’s score dribbled and splashed and cascaded over Zellerbach Hall. In the background, a giant orange koi fish ominously swam in and out of view, causing dancers to stay still or scatter. The looming koi fish grounded the piece in memory, a form of consciousness characterized as foggy, frayed and fickle. Though the spectacle of “13 Tongues” may not be for everyone, the dancers of Cloud Gate married uncanny athleticism and cathartic expression to create a marvel to behold.