Recluse's dance saved him from depression

Beckoning (above) is part of Taiwanese dance company Cloud Gate 2's triple bill at Huayi next year.
Beckoning (above) is part of Taiwanese dance company Cloud Gate 2's triple bill at Huayi next year.PHOTO: GIA TO

In his early 30s, Cheng Tsung-lung was struck by what he calls "an inexplicable depression" that came upon him out of nowhere.

Cheng, artistic director of Taiwanese contemporary dance troupe Cloud Gate 2, would shut himself in his room. When he went out, he lurked in corners. He could not bring himself to speak to anyone. He lost weight.

"I wanted to lock myself inside my heart," says the 40-year-old in Mandarin over the telephone from Taiwan.

Dance saved him. He began to choreograph a piece on living behind walls and, in so doing, began to work his way out of his reclusion.

"I tried to find cracks, open a window," he says. "Eventually, I was able to walk out from where I had trapped myself."

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This piece, The Wall, is part of a triple bill that Cloud Gate 2 will be performing at its Singapore debut in February next year, as part of the Esplanade's Huayi festival.

The troupe was set up in 1999 as the sister company to Taiwan's pre- eminent dance group Cloud Gate, founded by dance doyen Lin Hwai-min.

Unlike most junior companies, however, it does not prepare dancers to join Cloud Gate. Nor does it perform Lin's choreography. Rather, its focus is on showcasing young talent and promoting dance in the wider community, especially in schools and rural areas.

Cheng, who has helmed Cloud Gate 2 since 2014, choreographed two of the three works that the 13 dancers, aged between 23 and 35 years old, will perform in Singapore.

Besides the 22-minute The Wall, he also created Beckoning, a more playful work based on his childhood recollections of watching the street dancing rituals of Taoist temple parades with his mother.

Such rituals are now rare. Cheng plumbed his memories for the colourful movements of the street dancers for the 40-minute piece. He also drew inspiration from ji tong, a form of shamanism in which mediums are possessed by the spirits of gods during religious ceremonies.

The third piece is the 13-minute Wicked Fish by choreographer Huang Yi, 33, in which grey-clad dancers mimic a shoal of fish to the fast-paced music of Greek-French composer Iannis Xenakis' piece, Shaar.

Cheng says of Huang's choreography: "He uses what I consider to be extremely difficult duet movements, so that the dancers are like fish turning in the water without gravity. Even though the music is frenzied, the moves are still harmonious."

But beneath such fluidity lies a great deal of painful work, says Cheng, who is single. The greatest struggle he faces as a choreographer is translating the demanding movements of his visions to the dancers' bodies.

"We spend as much time trying to communicate as we do dancing," he says.

Cheng, who was last in Singapore 13 years ago as part of Cloud Gate's production Moon Water, says he is excited about returning with the younger troupe.

Besides tucking into Hainanese chicken rice, which he remembers from his last visit, he also looks forward to exploring the older parts of Singapore. "I want to look not for skyscrapers, but for places that hold traces of Singapore's past," he says. "Perhaps I can find inspiration for a new work there."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 22, 2016, with the headline 'Recluse's dance saved him from depression'. Print Edition | Subscribe