Dance is, of course, a visual art; but some dance performances lift the audience experience above and beyond that of merely watching dancers move through space. Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan’s Songs of the Wanderers is just such a performance. Presented on April 2nd by Carolina Performing Arts in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall — for one night only — this evening-length work is a visual feast as well as a poignant emotional journey.
The piece opens in darkness, a susurration issuing from the stage, barely detectable from where I was sitting. The lights come up to reveal a lone man (Wang Rong-yu) standing downstage right — a monk by his dress and shaved head, his hands folded in prayer, his eyes closed in meditation. The source of the whispering sound is immediately seen: a stream of rice pouring down on the monk’s head and shoulders and collecting at his feet, his diaphanous robes set fluttering by the impact. The image is striking, iconic, and one that will stay with me forever.
From upstage center, a dancer enters with a long staff, nearly twice her height, made from a tree branch. Hers is a slow, crouching walk, evoking the sense of a long journey, difficult and exhausting. She is joined by a second dancer, then a third, then more. A diagonal stream of rice bisects the stage. One by one, the dancers approach the stream, lay their staves across it, and kneel to scoop handfuls of the rice and lift them up — as an offering, perhaps? — then let them sift through their fingers
The rice (three-and-a-half tons of it are used in each performance) represents life-giving water, a metaphor for nourishment and sustenance, and also for the journey. The image of the river, with its winding nature and relentless momentum, has long been used as a metaphor for one’s journey through life. With the dark curtains as background and Chang Tsan-tao’s lighting design setting the rice in relief and giving it a golden glow, we see the rice as water and believe that it is so. The dancers dive into it, then scoop it up and fling it skyward, the kernels flying through the air like so many splashing droplets of water.
Throughout the 70-minute work, the dancers’ movement is, for the most part, slow and measured — sometimes trance-like and meditative, sometimes tortured and tense and labored. The concentration and physical control required in the piece are awe-inspiring, such as when one of the dancers executes a backbend without support from her hands, slowly arching her back and dropping her head to touch the floor behind her, her legs folded in a nearly horizontal V.
Students of meditation and mindfulness will see metaphors throughout Songs of the Wanderers. This is story of an inner journey, and inner journeys are slow and winding and often difficult. This difficulty is seen at the beginning of the work: the dancers are seeking, searching: for meaning, for answers, for relief and respite. They struggle both with themselves and with the challenges, real or imagined, that they face. Their staves represent both crutches to be cast off and necessary support for the journey, the tiny bells attached to the tops of the staves ringing to bring the wanderers back to mindfulness on their travels.
Toward the end of the work, shallow bowls of fire are set atop the heads of five seated dancers, their heads and shoulders draped with cloth. The flames call to mind the image of an inner fire, a purging, a burning away of what is no longer useful, but also the rising of a renewed spirit, the phoenix reborn.
Eventually, all of the flaming bowls but one are removed from the stage. The remaining bowl is placed on the floor downstage left, a single dancer attending it: the keeper of the flame. Suddenly, the stage is awash in light and rice is released in a breathtaking downpour across the entire stage. The effect is stunning.
The dancers, except for the keeper of the flame, then spin and spin and spin, as the choral accompaniment (Georgian folk songs, by the Rustavi Ensemble of Georgia) grows louder and faster. Holding the bowl above her head, the keeper of the flame exits upstage, walking through the remaining dancers as they fling and scatter the glowing rice, their movements now free and expansive. The searching of the wanderers has given way to release and enlightenment and joy.
Although the program indicates that the piece is divided into distinct sections (with titles like “Holy River” and “Rite of Tree”), each section flows uninterrupted into the next, the transitions subtle and seamless. Throughout the entire work, Wang Rong-yu maintains his prayerful pose, completely motionless except for one section in which he seemed to bow his head ever so slightly (though I might have imagined this). This was a physical feat, to be sure, but also a powerful metaphor. I saw the monk as representing the equanimity that one seeks to achieve in meditation (or in life), a core of peace at the center of the chaos that surrounds us.
Also throughout the work, Lin Hsin-fang, with his 10-foot-long sand rake, enters and exits and crosses the stage, moving the sand here and there — steady, relentless, the soul continuing on its path despite the storms within and without.
(Later, following the curtain call, Lin Hsin-fang returned to the stage alone for the “Finale or the Beginning,” carefully creating a spiral design in the sand that covered almost the entire stage. Unfortunately, those of us in the orchestra missed out on the full effect of the design, which of course was best viewed from above.)
Songs of the Wanderers, choreographed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s founder and artistic director Lin Hwai-min, had its premiere in Taiwan in 1994. Since then, it has toured the world numerous times, always to great acclaim and always with Wang Rong-yu portraying the role of the solitary monk. In addition to Lin Hwai-min’s choreography and Chang Tsan-tao’s brilliant lighting, credit goes to Austin Wang for his set design, Taurus Wah for his costume design, and Szu Chien-hua and Yang Cheng-yung for props design. Together with the dancers, these artists have created an immensely powerful work of art, one that I fervently hope I have the chance to see again.
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The following poem — in which the Hindu god Indra urges the life of the road upon a young man named Rohita in Aitareya Brahmana — was included in the program notes for Songs of the Wanderers and may be of interest:
There is no happiness for him who does not travel, Rohita!
Thus we have heard. Living in the society of men,
the best man becomes a sinner…
The feet of the wanderer are like the flower, his soul is
growing and reaping the fruit; and all his sins are destroyed
by his fatigues in wandering.
The fortune of him who is sitting, sits; it rises when he rises;
it sleeps when he sleeps; it moves when he moves.
SECOND OPINION: April 3rd Durham, NC Five Points Star review by Kate Dobbs Ariail: http://thefivepointsstar.com/2014/04/03/sublime-mystery-cloud-gate-dance-theatres-songs-of-the-wanderers-at-carolina-performing-arts/; and April 3rd Durham, NC Herald-Sun review by Susan Broili: http://www.heraldsun.com/lifestyles/entertainment/x740447231/REVIEW-Cloud-Gate-s-Songs-of-the-Wanderers-carries-audience-along-on-journey (Note: You must register to read this article).
SONGS OF THE WANDERERS, performed by the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan (Carolina Performing Arts, April 2 in Memorial Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill).
VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hb3sV6J6Rr0. NEWS RELEASE: .
PRESENTER: https://www.carolinaperformingarts.org/, https://www.facebook.com/pages/Carolina-Performing-Arts/9560250967, and https://twitter.com/UNCPerformArts.
OTHER LINKS: Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan (dance troupe): https://www.cloudgate.org.tw/eng/ (official website).
[RUN HAS CONCLUDED.]
Viki Atkinson danced professionally in musical theater for a number of years and later shifted her focus to choreographing for theater. Locally, she danced in the North Carolina Theatre productions of Cabaret, My Fair Lady, Man of La Mancha, Oklahoma!, and West Side Story. Additional performance credits include Kathy in Company, Peggy in Godspell, and the title role in Gypsy. Later, Atkinson lent her dance expertise to Spectator Magazine, serving as chief dance critic from 1987 to 1999. She also holds a degree in Dance Education from UNC-Greensboro; and she has taught extensively in a variety of settings, including Meredith College, Virginia Commonwealth University, Appomattox Regional Governor’s School (Petersburg, VA), and the School of Richmond Ballet. She was also on the faculty of the Raleigh School of Ballet for 10 years and directed the dance program at Martin Middle School for four years. Viki Atkinson recently returned to Raleigh after living in Richmond for six years, and is thrilled to be back in North Carolina! To read more of Viki Atkinson’s reviews, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/viki-atkinson/.