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★★★★★ Review: 13 Tongues by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre

Capturing and celebrating the rich sights, sounds and memories of Taiwan’s Bangka district through dance.

Before he became artistic director of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, Cheng Tsung-lung was helping his father sell slippers on the streets of Taiwan’s Bangka district to help support his family in the ’80s. Recalling how as a child, his mother would tell him about legendary 1960s street artist and storyteller known as Thirteen Tongues, Cheng would then observe the inhabitants strolling down Bangka, making up elaborate stories about them, and imagining rich characters involved in high energy chase scenes, or otherworldly rituals.

It is these memories that form the basis for his dance work 13 Tongues, which made its Singapore premiere at the Esplanade’s 2023 Huayi – Chinese Festival of the Arts. Performed by a team of 12 Cloud Gate dancers (Chan Pui-pui, Chang Yu-tzu, Chao Hsin, Chen Mu-han, Chou Chen-yeh Fan Chia-hsuan, Hou Tang-li, Huang Li-chieh Huang Mei-ya, Huang Po-kai, Wu Jui-ying, and Yeh Po-sheng), 13 Tongues is the kind of work that eschews plot in favour of mood, and through a flurry of shape, colour and choreography, transports audience members to the bustling streets of Bangka, and Cheng’s vibrant memories.

Beginning with a single dancer ringing a bell, 13 Tongues is initially in near darkness, with a phalanx of dancers in black undulating and moving their bodies against a dark stage. Yet even in the darkness, one can make out distinct shapes as they move lithely across the stage, working together to create textures with their limbs and torsos. Given Cloud Gate’s eclectic training, equipping them with techniques from qi gong to martial arts, modern dance to ballet, there is always a sense of physical dexterity and control felt from all the dancers, their breathing in sync, their bodies almost gliding, every leap or spin a single smooth movement.

Throughout 13 Tongues, one can never fully predict what’s about to happen next. Beyond the actual choreography, the dancers occasionally launch into screams or laughter, as if possessed by spirits, or replicating the errant sounds of Bangka, coupled with Lim Giong’s rousing music, from folk songs to electronica, sweeping us into another city. From time to time, one glimpses Ethan Wang’s projections, with what resembles a scroll of Chinese characters, or a massive koi fish swimming across the screen. Anything could happen, and the realm of possibility is fully open.

Perhaps though, owing to how the majority of the performance takes place in almost monochromatic hues, it becomes especially arresting when the first burst of colour appears onstage, as a single dancer dons a gloriously colourful, flowing costume (designed by Lin Bing-hao). Emerging dramatically, like a butterfly from a cocoon, all eyes are on her as she flourishes her sleeves, almost floating across the stage. Eventually, the other dancers also put on their own costumes, and under the light, glow with ethereal neon hues.

It is never entirely clear where the line is drawn between fantasy and reality, and for a medium like dance, which offers the possibility of leaning far into the abstract, Cloud Gate takes that and runs with it, to produce what is essentially a celebratory parade that honours cultural memory through art. Beauty is the focus for most of the performance, mesmerising us with celestial grace and magnificence. But towards the end is when 13 Tongues reaches its emotional stride, a multitude of personae and voices that finally arrive as they all become laced in colour.

Whether they are spirits or gods or vibrant residents of Bangka is never clear. But as we watch them lift each other, snake about the stage in mass formations, or chasing each other, the dancers seem to share a single cohesive mind, working like a well-oiled machine together to evoke these memories of a place both real and imagined. 13 Tongues may be based on an actual place, but under Cheng’s direction, the work becomes a powerful force that elevates Bangka into a mystical realm, and you fully understand how all this beauty, all this wonder, has influenced Cheng to become the artist he is today.

Main Photo Credit: Lee Chia-yeh

Other photo Credit: Liu Chen-hsiang

13 Tongues played from 3rd to 4th February 2023 at the Esplanade Theatre. More information available here

Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts 2023 ran from 27th January to 5th February 2023 at the Esplanade. Full programme and lineup available here

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