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Cover photo by Lee Chia-yeh
Growing up, Cheng spent a lot of his childhood and adolescence hawking slippers to pedestrians in the busy streets of Taipei. His childhood whims—not dreams, he mused in an interview with one of Esplanade's producers—ranged from being a doctor to the owner of an Internet cafe in the heyday of those geeky enclaves. For as long as he remembers, he has danced, choreographed and expressed his thoughts through the body.
Cheng graduated from the Dance Department of Taipei National University of the Arts and has performed with the acclaimed Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan ever since. From 2006, he was the Resident Choreographer for the main ensemble's sister company Cloud Gate 2 and in 2014, he served as its Artistic Director. Cheng is now the Artistic Director and choreographer of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, succeeding revered founder and choreographer Lin Hwai-min who stepped down in 2019.
In the same year, Cheng's Lunar Halo 《毛月亮》, featuring music by Sigur Rós and Kjartan Holm, premiered at the Taiwan International Festival of Arts. In 2020, he created Sounding Light 《定光》, which in his own words explored “how the body synchronises with voice and sound, and how we can bring more warmth and radiance to life”. In 2022, another new work Send in a Cloud 《霞》was described as “a celebration of life” amidst the trauma of the pandemic.
In 2023, his acclaimed 2016 work 13 Tongues 《十三聲》, inspired by his childhood memories of Taipei’s Bangka neighbourhood, is part of Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts 2023. We speak to one of the leading voices of the contemporary dance scene in Taiwan about his artistic practice.
I started by learning Asian folk dances, especially those from the Dai, Mongol, and Miao (Hmong) cultures. I was also exposed to classical Western ballet, and American modern dance of the 1970s. What I enjoyed most was improvisation. The teacher would tell us to imagine many things, such as natural phenomena like the wind, leaves, and water. I loved the freedom of improvisation, where there was no ‘standard answer’. Whenever the teacher gave us a theme, we could use our own ways to imagine many things, and it felt like play.
Yes, the hesitation has always been there. I don’t really know why I have continued on this path. But after I graduated from university and wanted to become a professional dancer, my father did say that he thought I might not be able to support myself. So to prove that I could, I decided to enter the only professional modern dance company in Taiwan at the time, which was Cloud Gate. It is still the only such company in Taiwan. In Cloud Gate, I slowly started to understand dance, or started to find out why I persevered with staying in dance. I still feel hesitation about this every day. But hesitation does not change what I do tomorrow, which is to keep dancing, and keep creating. So I guess I have a certain love for it.
In university, when I danced in Lin’s work, Legacy 《薪傳》, which was marking its 30th anniversary at the time. I especially liked this work’s explosive energy; I could express many emotions through the choreography.
Before I went to India, it was as if I had some understanding of many things, but was still quite muddled. During this journey, I had more time to talk to myself. I often feel that going to India allowed me to sort out my inner world, much like tidying up a room. I saw things in the external world, and looked back on my past experiences. I slowly organised my dialogue with these past events and people, putting them into one folder after another and placing them together. Because of this process, I understood myself much more.
It’s true. When I am creating, I can’t think of anything else, my entire brain is filled with dancers moving, coming together, breaking apart. It’s like I cannot take myself out of this state, I am unable to lead an ordinary person’s life. But that’s also why I find the creative process captivating.
I think every generation probably creates different work. Everybody grows up in a different environment. So as for how to connect, I don’t know. I think we are living in this time, and we will try our best to use dance to reflect how we experience our time.
We love doing outreach performances for schools, for the rural communities living in the mountains, and even in community art galleries and museums. These are very different performance spaces. In a typical theatre, we can’t see the faces of the audience. But in these places, we usually perform in an outdoor space, so we can clearly observe how the audience responds to our dancing. You can see their eyes light up, or how they start to smile. I think to let each community encounter and experience dance in the place where they live, this kind of pleasure, this kind of happiness, this kind of joy, if it can happen in many places, it’s actually a wonderful thing.
I think when a young child sees gangsters chasing or fighting one another in the street, he will feel that he is watching a very fantastical world. Because of such incidents, I would create good and bad characters, and then concoct a chase plot, and other stories like that.
Many of the folk customs in Bangka also involve people who don’t really appear in the real world. For example, in Taiwan there is a ba jia jiang (八家將) ritual, involving eight youths with painted faces, very special costumes, and weapons like knives and swords, parading the streets and displaying many movements and formations. In ordinary life, we don’t really see something like this. So I would feel that this came from another world. From all these things, I gradually created a story, and this story influenced the creation of 13 Tongues.
Fascinated by the legend of a street artist called "Thirteen Tongues" who could portray people of all walks of life, Cheng transforms his childhood memory of Taoist rites and the street life of Bangka into a fantastical world where deities, spirits and humans coexist. 13 Tongues premiered in 2016 in Taipei and the full-length work has also toured internationally to the United Kingdom, France, Germany and China.
I've been thinking about the Chinese proverb, 台上一分鐘，台下十年功, which translates to: a minute on stage takes ten years of practice off stage. That to me speaks of our sense of the flow of time, as human beings. And that all things need time, we especially need time to learn and to accumulate experience. But I'll let my work speak on my behalf! Let me present my thoughts through my actions.
Under the rage of the pandemic, we all face the same problems globally. How can we adopt more sustainable ways of living and develop eco-friendly habits? How do we keep everything in balance between human and nature? I will try to find the answer through my choreography.
Moving forward is the only way. Whether going quickly or slowly, there is only one direction from life to death. That is the law of nature.
13 Tongues will be staged as part of Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts on 3 & 4 Feb 2023 at Esplanade Theatre.
Cheng Tsung-lung is the Artistic Director of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, succeeding internationally renowned choreographer and founder Lin Hwai-min. While touring extensively worldwide, Cloud Gate is acclaimed as “Asia's leading contemporary dance theater” (The Times), which holds regular seasons in theatres in Taiwan, and stages annual free outdoor performances in cities and villages of Taiwan, drawing an average of 30,000 people per performance.