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Dance can break down walls: Cheng Tsung-lung

Huayi producer Delvin Lee talks to Cloud Gate 2’s artistic director Cheng Tsung-lung.


Published: 26 Jan 2017

Time taken : ~10mins

From hawking slippers on the streets of Taipei, Cheng Tsung-lung has grown into one of Taiwan’s leading young choreographers.

Growing up in a family of footwear makers, he graduated from the Dance Department of Taipei National University of the Arts and has performed internationally with the renowned Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. He is now artistic director of its sister company Cloud Gate 2, whose dancers are regarded by many as the future of dance in Taiwan.

Cheng has won international choreography competitions and received Taiwan’s most prestigious art prize, the Taishin Arts Award. Cloud Gate 2’s upcoming triple-bill at Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts features two works of his, The Wall and Beckoning, as well as Wicked Fish by another noted Taiwanese choreographer, Huang Yi.

Delvin Lee: What was your childhood dream? How did your dreams in life evolve to becoming a choreographer?

Cheng Tsung-lung: I haven’t thought about my childhood dream for a long time.

Recently, while on a plane, I got to know the five-year-old in the seat next to mine, and we started talking. There was some turbulence on board, and I asked him, are you scared? He said, “No! When I grow up, I want to be a pilot,” mimicking the action of steering a plane.

At that moment I remembered: there is such a thing as childhood dreams.

As a child, I dreamed of being a doctor, scientist, the President—it was always changing and always unrealistic. In junior high school, I wanted to be a gang leader; in high school a superstar; in university I wanted to run an Internet café.

My dreams were quite far removed from notions of perfection held by others, they were more like whims. My good friend, (writer) Hsieh Wang-ling, once told me about the aspiration of The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield. (In that classic 20th century American novel,) Holden says: “I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

I’ve never had such a precise dream as Holden’s, certainly nothing as crazy. It was more like the kid who I met on the plane when he mimicked steering the plane like a pilot – carefree, easy, like freehand brushwork that could just paint out the dreams.

For the most part in my life, I dance, I choreograph, and express what I want to say through the body. I look forward to communicating something beyond language.

Dance is a visual and sensory medium. It is a close cousin of music.

– Cheng Tsung-lung

DL: The Huayi team regards Cloud Gate 2 as a leader of the next wave of exciting dance companies in Taiwan. How does the company help young dancers grow and reach their fullest potential?

CTL: Our classes are very diverse: taichi daoyin (a practice which integrates breathing, movement and meditation), wushu, ballet, modern dance, improvisation, and relaxation. The dancers get a lot out of these classes – the circulation of inner strength from taichi daoyin, the grounding of the body from wushu, the grace of ballet. Over time, from long-term exposure to these physical methodologies, they gain different ways of imagining and expressing the body.

When we work with young choreographers, each one brings on board his/her unique creative process and working methods. Through these different collaborations, we learn more about the possibilities of dance!

I do think it is the dancers who discover themselves through this daily training and working experience, then grow to reach their fullest potential.

Beckoning by Cloud Gate 2.

DL: In 2016, I find the world I lived in became a little unfamiliar. It seems like walls are sprouting up in many places in the world. What do you think of that?

CTL: In 2009 when choreographing The Wall, I had a similar realisation: everything had become strange, bewildering and unrecognisable.

I wanted to express this feeling in a work of dance. I tried creating a human “wall” on stage, formed by dancers, and used it to convey inner turmoil, an emotional state of flux. The ensemble wears reversible black garb and deploys uniform gestures, while the music conveys the feeling of a hard, explosive energy wanting to break out. As the choreography progresses, colourful clothing appears on stage and the dance movements shift towards becoming more flowing and mellow. I wanted to show through the different choreographic set-pieces the separation between what is within and outside the wall. My rehearsal director at the time Chen Qiu-yin (now Cloud Gate 2’s associate artistic director) helped me to translate the music score into “beats”. I worked hard to create a dialogue between the images in my head and the beats, and that was how the scenes in The Wall were created.

Actually the creative process was very much like building a wall and then demolishing it. I took all I had learnt and built it up into a thick and sturdy wall. After a period of time, I had to tear it down myself, and try to use a different state of mind to face the future.

DL: We know (choreographer) Huang Yi has long been inspired by technology, through his pieces with the robot KUKA which were part of Huayi in 2016. This time around, he is using the movements of fish as a starting point (for Wicked Fish). Why?

CTL: Before Huang Yi’s rehearsals, the dancers would partner up and do contact improvisation exercises. They focus on the contact points with their partner’s body and then find balance between their weight and movements—one side would lean to the contact points, the other side would take on the weight. Whenever the contact points change, they would switch roles, creating a frenetic duet.

This kind of duet is very much like the twists and turns of a shoal of fish in water. I think Huang Yi's Wicked Fish is an exploration of the beauty and the various possibilities of the body. When presented together with the music, it creates a frenzied kind of harmony.

DL: How do you think dance can touch people in ways that other art forms like theatre or music can't?

CTL: Dance is a visual and sensory medium. It is a close cousin of music.

Dance is very ancient, and has been used to express our hopes and fears even before language existed.

Hence, when in the theatre, let the dancers lead you to breathe, to move and to run, then to recall that there is the primeval energy in life coming from somewhere deep within your body. That is wonderful.

Cloud Gate 2 presented Cloud Gate 2 – A Triple Bill at the Esplanade Theatre on 7 & 8 Feb 2017 as part of Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts.

This interview was translated from the original Chinese.

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