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INTERVIEW/For Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, 2020 a 'turning point'

Cloud Gate Artistic Director Cheng Tsung-lung. Photo courtesy of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre

Cloud Gate Artistic Director Cheng Tsung-lung. Photo courtesy of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre



2020 has been a whirlwind for Taiwan's renowned Cloud Gate Dance Theatre.

Organizationally, famed founder Lin Hwai-min (林懷民) retired and gave way at the beginning of 2020 to new artistic director Cheng Tsung-lung (鄭宗龍), and Cloud Gate 2, set up to discover new talent and promote dance to the public, ceased operations and was integrated into the main group.

Artistically, Cheng grappled with a new artistic direction as he followed in the footsteps of a living legend, exploring new boundaries.

Commercially, Cloud Gate has seen its schedule upended since March by the COVID-19 pandemic and its future clouded by uncertainty over the disease's progression.

Yet the 43-year-old Cheng, who first joined Cloud Gate as a dancer in 2002 and then took over Cloud Gate 2 in 2014, feels the winds of change and uncertainty brought by COVID-19 have come at just the right time.

"We were fortunate to encounter this major upheaval [COVID-19] at a turning point for Cloud Gate," he told CNA in an interview on Oct. 8.

"If this turning point had happened when things were going smoothly, we probably would have not felt so strongly about many things, and it would not have been that easy to make the changes we wanted to make."

Battling COVID-19

The group was lucky in that its major international campaign for the year was a 63-day tour of 11 cities and 27 performances in Europe that finished just as the COVID-19 outbreak was engulfing the continent.

"We were chased by the outbreak," said Cheng when he described the tour in previous interviews.

Their last stop of the tour took them to Sadler's Well Theatre in London, where Cheng's "13 Tongues" and Lin's "Dust" were both presented for the world to see the troupe enter a new phase following Lin's retirement.

When Cloud Gate returned to Taiwan in early March, however, it found a new world, its planned events up in the air. Domestic performances of Cheng's 2019 production "Lunar Halo" in April and the group's annual free outdoor shows in July were canceled.

It made its way back on stage Oct. 1-4 in Taipei with its new production "Sounding Light" and will stage the show on Oct. 17 and 18 in Kaohsiung and on Oct. 24 and 25 in Taichung, but nothing has been settled after that.

Though Cloud Gate has received several invitations from overseas to perform, it may have to turn them down because of travel restrictions related to the coronavirus.

Income from overseas performances is important to the group, but Cheng said travel abroad will depend on the path of the pandemic and availability of vaccines because quarantines are a problem.

"If it's not OK, then we'll just have to stay in Taiwan and tighten our belts," Cheng said, indicating that leaving dancers in isolation for days would not work for the group.

He said the group is preparing for the worst and would give more performances in Taiwan if overseas tours were not possible.

 Artistic challenges

Cheng and the group are also at a turning point artistically, with the new production "Sounding Light" representing a departure for the choreographer.

It shows a "quiet Cheng Tsung-lung," he said. "I was surprised by this side of myself. By working with dancers, I found physical movements that were not twitching, were more subtle, had no emotions attached, and did not express pain."

Getting there was a struggle, Cheng admitted to CNA, describing the experience as facing a major boundary.

Cheng said he simply wanted to explore how to combine sounds and dance, and thought it would be easy until he realized the vast possibilities created challenges and limitations as he went ahead with the piece.

"[Encountering a boundary] is a good thing, because it allowed me to slowly push the boundary from where I am and with what I experience," Cheng said.

With simmering lights on a bare white stage, "Sounding Light" opens with 12 dancers who huddle together before gradually spreading out as they make sounds mimicking creatures and forces in nature.

The sounds of nature in the piece were inspired by sounds Cheng noticed during his 14-day home quarantine in the mountains after returning to Taiwan from Europe, he said.

The use of a white floor and background forces audiences to focus on looking at and listening to the dancers, whom the choreographer used as "instruments" as they snap fingers, slap their bodies and the floor, hum and sing.

"It's about putting people at the center. When they make sounds, these are music, and when they move their bodies, they are dancing," he said.

Staying true to its mission

Despite its whirlwind 2020, Cloud Gate has remained true to its mission of introducing the art of dance to the public, going ahead with a series of promotional events in August and September across Taiwan.

He said the group will also go into smaller cities and towns in Taiwan, and bring students in rural areas to see their productions for free with the help of corporate sponsors.

"We will continue our efforts to make going to the theater and dancing a part of everyday life," he said.

Asked about his vision for Cloud Gate, Cheng said he hopes parents and children can often visit the group's venue in New Taipei's Tamsui to enjoy themselves, play on the grass around the place and hear music.

By continuing to present dance performances rooted in Taiwan, Cheng said he hopes everyone can gain a better understanding of the art form, become more liberated and dance a little bit themselves.

(Source: CNA)