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'13 Tongues & Dust', Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan - Sadler's Wells

The show begins with a single dancer slowly banging a drum-like object: the audience’s attention is captured from the outset. Live screams amplified by wireless microphones accompany this drum beat, and set the rhythm to which the dancers move. The Cloud Gate dancers maintain a captivatingly fluid style throughout - as a dancer myself, I can attest to the incredible strength and control a dancer must possess to move in such a way.

Dust. Photo credit: Liu Chen-Hsiang.

As the music transitions and the backdrop changes from smoke, to colourful abstract art, then to Koi fish, Cheng Tsung-lung’s 13 Tongues comes alive. It is worth noting the vocal accompaniment, provided by the dancers in the form of screams, chants and song - all of which contributed to the rawness of the piece. The use of smoke in Lin Hwai-min's Dust to mimic both its namesake and dirt is secondary to the dancers' powerful facial expressions of suffocation, suffering and pain throughout the piece. These are only enhanced by their white eye and lip makeup, and complemented by dark body makeup resembling dirt.

A standout part of the piece is the first costume change. A single dancer emerges from the wings having changed from a loose black smock to one of neon, matching the earlier abstract background. The featured dancer of this section, accompanied by her fellow dancers dressed in black, does a remarkable job of mirroring the vibrant colours of the smock through her lively movement. Towards the end of the piece, a spectacle is created by the remaining dancers following suit, each wearing a uniquely painted colourful garment.

13 Tongues. Photo credit: Lee Chia Yeh.

For most of 13 Tongues & Dust, all dancers are present on stage. Impressively, each dancer follows an individual set of choreography, though often resulting in masterful moments of unison. From the placement of the dancers' feet while crawling to their facial expressions during an attitude, the attention to even the most minute detail is reflected in every movement of both pieces.

In both 13 Tongues and Dust, Cloud Gate master the presence of raw humanity through their unapologetic marriage of voice and movement, unafraid to depict human vitality, suffering, pain, and failure. The dancers’ control and strength are demonstrated through a myriad of fluid steps and contractions, contrasted by moments during which extensions are suspended mid-air. Cheng Tsung-lung’s childhood experience selling slippers on the street in Bangka is paired with storyteller Thirteen Tongues' reflections of Taiwanese cultural tales, making for a more authentic and captivating experience. The founder of Cloud Gate, Lin Hwai-Min, who steps down in 2020, captures an enticing display of struggle and darkness in Dust.

13 Tongues. Photo credit: Liu Chen-Hsiang.

From the first beat of the drum to the final bow at the end of each performance, it is clear that the Cloud Gate members respect their art form, and one another. The choreographer and director later took to the stage to humbly bow to their dancers, making for a heartwarming display of mutual respect. Certainly, Cloud Gate both understand and revere the art of dance.