Long ago, I saw Martha Graham dance. It was midwinter in Minneapolis and the world was whitely still, but under the hot stage lights the grande dame and her troupe, all in black, sliced up space with blistering intensity and re-ordered our understanding of the world's emotional terrain. I've seen a lot of great dance since then, but not until this year's performance by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan at the American Dance Festival have I seen a piece that moved me at such a fundamental level.
For their performance on June 6 in Reynolds Theater, the company presented a single long work, Cursive. Choreographed by company founder Lin Hwai-min, it was set to music both spare and lush for cello and percussion by Qu Xiao-song. The dancers all wore black. And the way they moved and the images they made opened the viewer to a deeper comprehension of the connectedness of all forms of expression and the relationship of art and spirituality.
Lin Hwai-min and his company have long been studying ancient Chinese practices of spiritual and physical discipline through movement - Tai Chi and the martial arts - with their emphasis on focused energy. To this they have added the study of calligraphy, which has many similar aspects, and have created, with movement, a meditation on that expressive form of writing, in which the form and style of the characters are as communicative as the meaning they signify. Working in front of large-scale projections of single calligraphic images, or within space filled with the characters written in light, Cloud Gate danced an analogy to the process of ink-brush calligraphy, and to the mental process of writing.
The work opens with several dancers, or characters, isolated on their separate "pages," rectangles of light. Each moves alone on the page in a flow of mark-making as brushed characters appear on the large projections behind them. Soon the dancers leave their isolation and move together to create more complex arrangements on larger "scrolls." They drawl themselves out languidly and disconnectedly; they cluster densely in an intense rushing snarl; they fall and twist and spin themselves apart; they space themselves in elegant procession - so perfectly mirroring the erratic, enchanting process of writing that it came as little surprise to learn that Lin Hwai-min is also a novelist. The company's motions faultlessly combine a surprising range of martial arts and Tai Chi movements with modern dance vocabulary and even some balletic turns, and the dancers also add to the musical accompaniment with the slap of their feet on the stage and their synchronized, controlled breathing.
The piece comprises ten "scenes" of varying complexity and emotional tone. Just when it is all starting to feel a little too serious comes a scene of such playful frivolity that the audience giggles. And just when one is starting to think that there will be no show-stopping spectacle comparable to the bombs of golden rice in last year's "Songs of the Wanderers," there comes an even more impressive theatrical tour-de-force. For the eighth scene, the entire stage box is overwritten in calligraphic characters projected, white on black, onto every surface - proscenium, stage floor, side and back drops, and ceiling. It is an amazing image, even before the five bare-chested male dancers appear, to move through the light. When they are still, the characters are written on their bodies, with the deeper writing of musculature and bone like a subtext beneath. When the dancers whirl through the space, they are like sparklers writing in the summer sky.
How can such a marvel be followed? By a single female dancer, who wafts from the stage a long sheer black cloth and transforms herself into the brush painting with its silken ink. She is the maker and the mark; the action and the result.
The final scene again filled the stage with dancers and brought a sense of completion although there had been no narrative - but the audience was loath to let the evening end. Ovation followed ovation until Lin Hwai-min himself took the stage to a final round of thundering applause. No one who saw this piece will miss another opportunity to see Cloud Gate. Those interested in modern dance who didn't see it should put Cloud Gate Dance Theatre at the top of their must-see lists for the future.