DanceView Times, New York edition
When a theatrical experience is as mesmerizing and complete as Moon Water, the latest work brought to these shores by Cloud Gate Dance Theater of Taiwan, the afterglow resonates for days. The concept of creating a dance work drawing primarily on the movements of tai chi could have led to something insular—full of surface piety but distancing itself from an audience rather than communicating to it. But Moon Water was the most riveting 70 minutes I've experienced in a theater in a while, and the immensely focused, amazingly concentrated audience at BAM suggested that many were held equally rapt.
This was a stunningly unified collaboration, one in which the dancing, the music and the set/lighting design worked together seamlessly to create a rarefied world of meditative beauty. The program notes referred to imagery from Buddhist proverbs and choreographer Lin Hwan-min's intention to create "a poetic rendering of Taoist philosophy." Without sufficient knowledge of these areas, I can only appreciate those allusions in an uneducated, general way, but the exquisite idealized world which Lin and his eighteen dancers evoked on the BAM stage communicated a poetic and spiritual purity even to the uninitiated.
Those dancers (who include Sheu Fang-yi, familiar here from her impressive performances in leading roles with the Martha Graham Dance Company) certainly move in a most distinctive and highly disciplined manner. Lin often asks them to perform very slowly, undulating, spiraling and unfolding with great control, but they also launch into sudden and surprising shifts of direction, weight and level with amazing spontaneity. They work from a deep center, from which they control the most delicate wisp of movement with complete calm.
What gives Moon Water such an organic, engrossing tone is the way the dancers are so completely on each others' wavelength. If several of them are performing a very sustained passage, they move as one. A simple progression of a slow diagonal—with the dancers advancing inn a way that resembled gliding more than walking—goes beyond unison; they are separate, yet moving as one.
Much of this is due to the way Lin has used the excerpts from Bach's cello suites that form the score of Moon Water. The recordings are those performed by Mischa Maisky, who plays them at a highly deliberative pace, transforming them into reverberant meditations. This is not to say that they lose their rhythmic propulsion or turn bland, but that the audience feels absorbed into the music's richness and architectural complexity. The musical choice just felt innately right, as it did when Lin chose Georgian folk music for Songs of the Wanderers, the 1994 work Cloud Gate brought to BAM in 2000.
The dancers seemed to inhabit the music, luxuriating in its possibilities. At times, small details—one woman, amid an ensemble, rolling gently on the floor as a trill is heard—made one notice the way the movement and music engaged each other. Mostly, the Bach provided an inner momentum, a gravity and haunting sense of infinite, all of which resonated deeply with the incredible imagery Lin and his dancers created.
That imagery was multiplied by the use of panels with soft mirrored surfaces, which reflected the stage picture in a gently blurry manner that suggested the reflection in a body of water. These mirrors were used sparingly—one was suspended in an upstage corner, titled on an angle so that it only reflected a small portion of the stage. Another was revealed for a brief time in the middle of the work, as a section of the dark backcloth was raised to reveal it. They blended harmoniously with the gentle flow of what Lin created onstage, but seemed decorative rather than integral to the power of the dancers themselves—especially as enhanced by Chang Tasn-tao's haunting lighting design.
The major design coup occurred when, during the final section, the entire backdrop was revealed as mirrored, so that the audience was now confronted head-on and intensely by the multiplication of watery images. By then, the stage itself had been infiltrated—slowly and subtly, so that one could not recognize its source—by water that seeped over the surface and gradually filled the stage, turning it into a shallow pool. The dancers continued their focused, limpid activity, unperturbed by this added element, sinking into it and flowing through it. No sounds of splashing were heard, just a soft eddying and rippling.
The addition of the water, so surprising when it first appears, could have come across as a distraction or a gimmick. Instead, it enhanced the lyrical beauty of a unique, memorable theatrical journey.
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