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Cloud Gate: The Taiwanese treasure opening Dublin Dance Festival 2024

In 13 Tongues, the renowned company blends traditional themes such as harmony and balance with explosive reflections on contemporary life

As dancers congregate in small groups on the stage of the Mercat de les Flors performing-arts centre, in Barcelona, their calm, softly spoken artistic director offers advice on improving certain movements for that evening’s performance. Speaking in Taiwanese, Cheng Tsung-lung demonstrates a rapid-fire jumping sequence while two men emulate it. Near the wings, a woman turns with such purpose that she looks as if she might bore a hole in the stage.

The 14 members of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, who are wearing a variety of unitards, leg warmers and headbands in shades of black and grey, could be an advertisement for Uniqlo. Their uniformity is unusual for a company of dancers in rehearsal yet appropriate for one whose members are so in sync that they sometimes appear to operate as a single entity. As they slide, turn, toss each other into acrobatic-looking lifts and wrap their bodies into remarkable shapes, they maintain an underlying unity that feels uncanny given such complex moves.

Qigong, the Chinese system of breath and concentration, “is at the root of what we are doing, but because we have a new generation we have to go with the flow of the times”, says Ting-chi Chuang, one of the managers of Cloud Gate. “When on tour they might warm up with a meditation of 10 minutes.”

As the clock ticks closer to the curtain opening, and before they step into their neatly lined up Crocs, slippers and sandals to scurry off to their dressing rooms, Cheng calls the performers to the front of the stage. He summarises suggestions for the evening’s performance of 13 Tongues, a production full of Taiwanese folk songs, chanting, bell-ringing and other, more synthesised sounds. He wants them to be more forceful in using their voices: 13 Tongues is unusual in that the dancers sing and chant. He also wants them to be more dramatic in shifting from one shape to the other. Timing is everything, and if they can hold one pose for longer before moving to the next it will create a more powerful effect.


The production blends traditional themes such as nature, harmony and balance with more colourful and explosive reflections on contemporary life in Taiwan. Cheng created the dance partly as a homage to Bangka, the part of Taipei where he grew up: 13 Tongues was the name of a larger-than-life storyteller whom Cheng remembers encountering as a child, while helping his father sell slippers on the bustling streets. In the dance he infuses classical and modern movements on a near-mythic journey through the streets of Bangka that is part carnival, part visit to a serene mountaintop. The exploration, dramatically illustrated with vibrant sets and costumes, morphs between the ancient and the present day, evoking everything from street performers to shamans.

Like Cloud Gate’s other evening-length productions, 13 Tongues illustrates a respect for the company’s heritage while maintaining ambition for its future. Dance companies worldwide seek to strike a balance between old and new; Cloud Gate does so while making this delicate symmetry appear effortless. The company’s ability to usher dance into the 21st century while honouring its past marks another achievement in its list of accomplishments.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre was founded in 1973 by Lin Hwai-min, who as a young man had spent time at the Martha Graham School, in New York. He essentially introduced contemporary dance to Taiwan, bringing awareness of dance as an art form and profession. This took place during a pivotal time, as Taiwan was reinventing itself after being ruled by Japan and handed back to China in 1949. By the 1970s Taiwan had entered a new phase of self-definition. Now, 50 years after being formed, Cloud Gate is seen as one of Taiwan’s national treasures.

The company is adept at performing slow, repetitive movements such as those in Songs of the Wanderers, where a steady stream of sand pours on to the stage from the rafters. More recent works include dances with eclectic soundscapes and digitised sets, offering a more modern backdrop for Cloud Gate’s energetic and expansive steps.

Cloud Gate’s outdoor performances in Taipei regularly draw crowds of up to 30,000 people. “When we perform at home it’s like a holiday for the people,” says Cheng through an interpreter. “People arrive early with their families, their friends. They bring food. It becomes like a holiday.”

The dancers’ weekly routine may include ballet class one day, contemporary the next and street dance another day, so they can just as easily do a triple pirouette as they can spin on their backs or perform a flying somersault. To achieve the serene movement quality that is the company’s hallmark, the dancers’ daily preparation often includes a long standing meditation, to quiet the mind and bring it into harmony with the body. Such extraordinary discipline exemplifies the work ethic of this group.

“In a lot of western dance they want the dancers to go up and reach. But for us it’s a cycle of breathing with the focus down,” says Cheng. “In a 90-minute standing meditation you can feel gravity. It’s totally different from what you learn in the western training.”

Standing completely still for more than an hour certainly offers an excellent foundation for almost anything that comes next.

“After a while, because you cannot move, your mind can also be calmed down,” Cheng continues. “You look around and see that another dancer is meditating and still functioning. With practice you get used to it.”

Cloud Gate (which is named after a Chinese ritual dance) has won numerous accolades, including the UK National Dance Award for outstanding company. Support in Taiwan runs so deep that when Cloud Gate’s home studios burned down, in 2008, the company received so many unsolicited donations that they could afford to build their new state-of-the art studios with no additional fundraising.

Building that structure was another exercise in dedication: the architect who designed it toured with the company for a year in order to better understand Cloud Gate’s needs. The resulting building, complete with a performance space, is nestled amid trees overlooking Mount Guanyin. In the middle of such greenery its undulating, fluid design appears almost otherworldly. “It is embedded in nature,” says Chuang. “The only way to see Cloud Gate’s home on Google Maps is from above.”

Cheng and the artistic team took to the mountains when researching the score for 13 Tongues. They ended up incorporating incantations passed down from indigenous hillside tribes; in the performance, dancers chant as they move against the vivid backdrop where koi fish occasionally glide past. Lim Giong’s score mixes ancient melodies with electronic influences.

Coming from a country with such a complex history, does Cheng believe Cloud Gate’s dances are political? “Anything can be related to politics, yes. However, the exploration of dancing and its creation should not be political.” He maintains that there is power in dance, particularly during this time in world history. “Two people are arguing and one starts to dance,” says Cheng, waving his arms as if drawing calligraphy in the air. “Suddenly you don’t have an argument any more.”

13 Tongues, performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, is at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, on Tuesday, May 14th, and Wednesday, May 15th, as part of Dublin Dance Festival

Dublin Dance Festival 2024: Five other shows to catch

Emma Martin: Night Dances Hometown favourite Emma Martin presents this series of four vignettes as an homage to dance in various forms. From club dancing to competitions, the movements accelerate into a rollicking exploration of dance in all its glory. A master of her craft, Martin deftly creates an exhilarating atmosphere for experiencing movement.

Mufutau Yusef: Impasse The talented Mufutau Yusef explores politics of the black body in this powerful duet commissioned by Liz Roche Company. He and his fellow dancer Lucas Katangila confront and help to reshape historical narratives during a tender exploration full of physical and emotional intensity.

Olivier Dubois: My Body of Coming Forth by Day Expect the proverbial fourth wall to come down in this performance by one of France’s notable dancers and choreographers. Each show will develop following a random process, cued by spectators, from pre-established rules. A sole performer full of surprises, Dubois will then breathtakingly revisit some of the 60 shows that form his striking career.

CoisCéim: Bench #3 Celebrate everyday spaces as works of art in this innovative, site-specific project that began as a collaboration between CoisCéim and Waterways Ireland. The impetus is to become inspired by the water around us – a plentiful task for island-dwellers. Free outdoor performance over two days.

Laura Murphy: This Is It/8 Dance Portraits Dancers have notoriously short careers. The dance artist and director Laura Murphy graciously offers greater longevity by noting them in this film. A collection of multimedia portraits, this welcome exploration challenges notions of what we view as success.