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Monday, September 10, 2018, 18:03
Modern dance with folk
By Chen Nan
Monday, September 10, 2018, 18:03 By Chen Nan

Cheng's work, 13 Tongues, is inspired by a story his mother told him about a street artist in Taipei in the 1970s. (PHOTO / CHINA DAILY)

Taiwan dancer-choreographer Cheng Tsung-lung can still recall the story his mother told him about the legendary street artist known as 13 Tongues.

Whenever this street artist appeared, people living in the neighborhood passed the news around and gathered to watch his show. For years, I've been fascinated with the story of 13 Tongues

Cheng Tsung-lung, Choreographer

During the 1970s in Bangka (Taiwanese name for Wanhua), the oldest district in Taipei. The artist 13 Tongues would stand in a public space on the street, telling stories and playing different roles-both male and female, old and young-switching from one character to another.

"Whenever this street artist appeared, people living in the neighborhood passed the news around and gathered to watch his show," says Cheng, 43. "For years, I've been fascinated with the story of 13 Tongues."

In 2016, Cheng premiered a dance production titled 13 Tongues at the Taiwan International Festival of Arts, which was inspired by the story of the street artist and Cheng's memories about his childhood in Bangka.

The show closed the annual Macao Arts Festival this year and is due to launch a six-city tour across the Chinese mainland in October, which will include Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

In 13 Tongues, 11 dancers from Taiwan's Cloud Gate 2 contemporary dance company go beyond dance movements to add vocal elements into the production, such as chanting old incantations, making street noises and singing old Taiwanese folk songs.

Cheng invited Taiwan composer Lim Giong, art designer He Jia-sing, projection designer Ethan Wang and costume designer Lin Bing-hao to bring back the everyday scenes of daily life of 1970s Bangka and add a contemporary touch to the images they evoke to communicate with the audience.

Taiwan dancer-choreographer Cheng Tsung-lung. (PHOTO / CHINA DAILY)

"I simply wanted to start from where I grew up, to transform Bangka in my head with dance movements, sound and vision," says Cheng in Beijing, where he is scheduled to stage the dance production at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing from Oct 26 to 28.

Born into a poor family in Taipei, Cheng helped his family's small shoe business by selling slippers on the streets of Bangka from a young age. The dynamics of street life of Bangka later became the source of inspiration for Cheng's choreography.

Cheng's mother sent him to study dance at the age of 8 as she wanted her son to learn about discipline.

"I never thought about becoming a dancer. I wanted to dance because it made me happy. When I danced to the music, my body was relaxed and I was totally in the zone," Cheng says.

After graduating from the dance department of Taipei National University of the Arts in 2002, Cheng toured internationally with the Cloud Gate Dance Theater and served as its resident choreographer from 2006 to 2010, before becoming its artistic director in 2014.

Due to lower back injuries caused by constant dancing, he retired as a dancer and became a choreographer, allowing the dancers to fulfill the dance moves he imagines in his mind.

The pieces choreographed by Cheng have been shown in many countries, including Blue Hour, which was inspired by a sleepless night in the early spring of 2013 in New York, and Beckoning, which features Taiwanese folk dancing and religious statues.

The production of 13 Tongues is Cheng's first full-length work with Cloud Gate 2, which was founded by renowned choreographer Lin Hwai-min in 1999.

Cheng's work, 13 Tongues, is inspired by a story his mother told him about a street artist in Taipei in the 1970s. (PHOTO / CHINA DAILY)

Unlike its mother troupe, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, the contemporary dance company founded by Lin in 1973 as the first modern dance company for all Chinese-speaking communities, Cloud Gate 2's main focus is showcasing the work of talented young choreographers and dancers from Taiwan.

"When I showed 13 Tongues to Lin for the first time, I was worried because my choreography is very different from his work, which are meditative and poetic, and combine ancient aesthetics with a modern approach," Cheng says. "He called it a 'bold idea'."

By the end of 2019, 71-year-old Lin will step down as artistic director of Cloud Gate Dance Theater and Cheng will succeed him. Lin will stay on as a board member of Cloud Gate Foundation and his choreographic works will also remain in the company's repertoire.

It happened on a day early this year at Lin's home, when he asked Cheng to follow in his footsteps.

"I was shocked because there was no sign that he would retire and that I would be offered the position," says Cheng. "It's a huge responsibility and I am still preparing myself for that role."

Referring to Lin his "mentor", Cheng says that the first time he walked into Lin's house, he was overwhelmed by a huge amount of books piled on the floor and lining the walls.

When Cheng asked Lin questions about the inspirations behind his choreography, Lin gave him a book titled Letters to a Young Poet-a collection of letters written by German poet Rainer Maria Rilke to an aspiring poet.

In one letter, Rilke writes: "Even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world's sounds-wouldn't you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories?"

"He taught me to go into myself, my daily life and to find everything in myself and in nature," Cheng says.

Contact the writer at chennan@chinadaily.com.cn

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