writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

Tricky Terrain

Moon Water
Cloud Gate Theater
[presented by Cal Performances]
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
November 1, 2003

By Ann Murphy
Copyright ©2003 by Ann Murphy

I took up the cello several years ago because I wanted to learn how to play music that could go directly to the spine, set off earthquakes in the soft tissues, and rumble through cranial fluid, the way Bach's Six Suites for Cello Solo do. In fact, I decided that it would be my ambition to play at least several of the suites before I died. I didn't expect Casals to channel himself through me; I knew I had nothing more than average musical ability. But the suites were to be my Everest, and I'd head there despite the folly of it, undertaking the perils of wind-swept double stops and locating rich structural harmonies through a progression of mere single notes the way Sir Edmond Hillary searched for a solid foothold in the ice. Fate, being unkind, cut me down right around the time I commanded a wobbly knowledge of Saint-Saen's Le Cynge: tendonitis wracked my wrist and elbow until the entire arm felt broken, like Pavlova's wing in the Dying Swan as she flutters to the floor. While I abandoned my musical Everest, my love of the cello suites remains.

Two weeks ago, the 30-year-old Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan presented a 90 minute movement composition called Moon Water, (1998) by company director Lin Hwai-min, set to Bach's solo cello work, and based on an otherworldly vocabulary of coiling, squatting, undulating movement. In style it crosses Butoh and Graham, tai chi and Chinese folk dance, ballet and Chi Kung, and had about it the earnest, often beautiful experimentalism that choreographers from China have been producing for a few decades. It was terrain the 20 supple performers crossed with ghostly agility and an extreme mastery of the flesh that was reminiscent of the control achieved by Chinese acrobats.

Tilted on high, stage left, was a panel of mirrors that obliquely reflected the dance. The dancers in their beautifully diaphanous silks shimmered like apparitions in the slanted glass, designed by Austin Wang. The vague images that we saw resembled ink washed pictorial dreams, and while I appreciated what the design hoped to achieve, I never lost the sense that this was rather like a heavenly version of a bedroom mirror, similarly literal-minded, and similarly tacky. The problem was that the mirror never really transformed what we saw, and it never quite stopped asserting that the action on stage was other-worldly because, look! here it dreamily was. But it reflected the action back to us in a self-consciously etherealized from the way mirrored sex can shift lovemaking into the cheesy, mannered realm of pornography.

If mirrors had been the only obstacle in Moon Water,then it would have been simpler to adjust my perspective and compensate for the drag they put on the action. But the mirrors had their counterpart in Lin Hwai-min's choice of music. My concert companion, an Oregon farmer, has seen only a handful of dance programs in his life yet he located the problem at once. How, he asked, can you compete with that music? And why would you want to? The scenic action began with Suite No. 5, a sarabande, and concluded with the allemande of No. 6 (along with more No. 5), performed by Mischa Maisky in a Deutsche Gramophone release.

As the work progressed, the dancers positioned themselves in exquisite tableaux vivant, or hugged the ground in an elastic crouch, arcing back and forth like sweepers of the spirit's path, and I imagined them dancing in silence, or to the trickle of water that we began to hear toward the end as H2O slowly covered the stage. It would have asked much more of us as an audience if they had performed to nothing but the theater's low environmental rustle. And with near-silence the mirrors might even have assumed the character of an active force on stage rather than a "poetic" contrivance. But the music made that impossible.

Whether god fits in the picture for listeners or not, the Cello Suites, in their spare, flinty glory, speak to the ineffable and eternal. Through its complex harmonic architecture the music points in fact, to the immanence of the divine, and we experience it ourselves through the transcendent feeling those harmonies offer us. To arrive at an equal plane in movement is to work at the musical and choreographic level of a Balanchine. In lesser hands, such music heightens the weakness of a choreographer's output at the same time it bombastically muffles the choreography like a huge auditory rug. Despite his use of rounded, spiraling action free from the square tempi of Western music, Lin Hwai-min nevertheless choreographed to the musical accents. Dancers arms frequently opened and ended their arcs on the beginning and end of phrases. They lunged on the beat, and they rose and fell to the accents with a predictability that grew numbing. The music came to seem like a black hole, its irresistible, quashing magnetism taking the vitality out of the silken, cocooning movement. Toward the end, the trickle of water turned into a pond on stage and the dancers began to splash through the water like dignified children in a summer puddle. I appreciated what Lin was trying to achieve, but this was one East/West fusion that fizzled.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 8
November 17, 2003
Copyright ©2003 by Ann Murphy




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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on October 7, 2003