Pretty, Vacant: Cloud Gate Dance Theatre at BAM

Taiwan’s Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, whose Water Stains on the Wall opened last night at BAM (through Oct. 15; tickets $20+), is one of the companies that ultimately I don’t feel like the right person to write about them. Unfortunately, that’s something I can only learn after the fact, not being able to see the future and all.

All of which is not to say that the show is bad–it’s not–but rather that it leaves me sort of stuck between a sense that the work isn’t doing what I want to see art doing, on the one hand, and the sense that this is likely nothing more than my own taste, on the other. Writing about Compagnie Thor’s To the Ones I Love a couple weeks ago, I commented, “I also like pretty and/or sexy people (of either gender) doing pretty things because people like to see pretty things. I like fun.” And indeed, Cloud Gate (unlike Compagnie Thor) offers that sort of reward.

Audiences attending will spend a little over 70 minutes watching the remarkably accomplished company float about the stage, with flowing pants that beautifully accentuate choreographer Lin Hwai-min’s effortless style, in which the dancers demonstrate a stunning sort of balance and centering as they move through forms borrowed from Tai-Chi, martial arts, and other East Asian traditions (and yes, I read that in the program notes) while continuing his exploration–spanning more than a decade’s worth of shows, if I understand correctly–of Chinese calligraphy. His company is beautiful if uniform, with a perhaps three-to-one male-to-female ratio. Gender is differentiated in the movement. Not that the females have weaker or more submissive roles to play within the choreography, but the women are called upon much less often to demonstrate physical power or balance.

Overall it’s lovely and fluid. Lin Hwai-min has a fantastic grasp of space, and loves shifting focus around the raked stage, making brilliant use, amongst other fine touches, of the possibilities offered by a sloping diagonal.

The problem I have is that, as light and enjoyable as it occasionally was, taken as a whole it doesn’t seem to amount to much more than an exercise in style. But I hesitate to make that judgment.

Cloud Gate is coming out of a different culture, and the movement bears witness to completely different traditions with which I’m unfamiliar, so I worry that there are all sort of signifiers I might be missing. So I’m sort of stuck: If I assume I saw all there was to see, I may be guilty of a rather boring sort of ethnocentrism. But if I write off my reservations as imposing my own tastes and expectations on a work developed in and for a different cultural space, and just take it as it is, I’m most certainly guilty of a grotesque form of Orientalism in which I’ve decided not to actually engage with the artists as artists, but rather treating their work like multicultual kitsch.

So in short, I have little capacity to speak with any real sense of certainty. I don’t regret seeing the show by any means, but I can’t see how it adds up to anything more than a pretty piece of fluff. Which has its own rewards, to be sure, and I don’t want to discount them. But it certainly wasn’t enough to make me want to go out of my way to see it again. All I can say is that I’m more and more excited to see what Wang Yuanyuan will be bringing next week (you can read our interview with her here). Lin Hwai-min is of an older generation of East Asian choreographers, whose work began in Taiwan before China (whose relationship is, er, complicated) began its current economic and cultural explosion. Wang is a product of, and commentator on, that explosion. Together I expect them to offer a striking contrast in terms of perspective.

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