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February 24, 2014 5:41 pm
The orchestra pit at the Wells is covered by a long tank of water filled with giant lotuses in their full plastic glory. And the programme for Nine Songs, by the Taiwanese Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, all-too-significantly presaged by these artificial blooms, proposes a “ritual” made by Lin Hwai-min – the troupe’s director – based on poems written by Qu Yuan, whose dates are given as 475BC-221BC. Here is cause for puzzlement, intensified by the activities we find on stage, where accompaniments range from songs by ethnic groups in Taiwan; Tibetan Bells by Henry Wolff and Nancy Hennings; Tantras of Gyuto by David Lewiston; the Japanese Imperial Court musicians; classical flute music from north India; and a recitation of the names of men killed in Chinese wars.
Lin Hwai-min casts his net wide. But not deep enough, I felt, to bring any persuasive dance to the stage. We watch an elaborate display of clichés associated with oriental theatre: white vestments which reveal bare-chested men; women more discreetly garbed; anguished jumpings-about and a modicum of predictable face-pulling; miles of trailing white fabric to suggest a river; people who walk without swinging their arms; long white wands waved and beaten on the stage; fright-masks to represent demons; activities of in-ter-min-able slowness as a woman bends towards the lotus blooms; incidents best described as A Bad Day at the Gym; giant bamboo devils (rather fun, these!); and two men, one of whom walks (in modern dress) across the stage with a suitcase, while the other, also a contemporary, rides a bicycle. Oh, and there are roller-skates.
Even its final and touching moments, when the cast brings a constellation of tiny night-lights to glimmer on the darkened stage, are too long. The production is earnest, danced with dedication, its cast plainly devoted and able. I thought about the splendours of Chinese opera, of miracles of performance in Noh and kabuki, of Balinese dance, and knew why I felt so restive.
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