The start of Dance Umbrella is like a new school term, with everyone returning from the summer months when visiting troupes and circus shows are the only dance in London. The month-long festival of contemporary dance is always welcome, and it’s especially good this year, with a strong mix of established names and fledgling talent.
Odd then to open with Cloud Gate Theatre of Taiwan’s new-ish piece Wind Shadow. The company regularly appears in London and is much respected for its mix of precision dancers and mystical themes, but for Wind Shadow its director Lin Hwai-Min has teamed up with Cai Guo-Qiang, who is best know for creating the visual effects for the opening and closing ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics.
Cai’s talent for eye-popping pageants is in no doubt, and his contribution to Cloud Gate is, by the visual wizardry of Beijing, a model of restraint. However, by dance standards the piece feels gimmicky. It features 16 dancers in various evocations of wind and shadow. Giant fans in the wings blast gusts onto the stage where the dancers fly kites and run around with flags. It looks great, and is spot on for ceremonial occasions, but you wonder what it’s doing in the Barbican Theatre.
The same goes for the “shadow” sections. Here, half of the dancers are dressed in black body stockings which cover every inch of them, including their hands and faces. They lie on the floor and mimic the movements of the standing dancers just like their shadows. All show considerable technical accomplishment, with every move of the standing dancers replicated by his or her shadow.
But so what? Only at the close of the 90-minute Wind Shadow do things become more serious. A striking film sequence of spreading ink-blobs, or bullet scares, is projected onto the back drop. The dancers, by now all dressed in black, roll across the stage, as if emerging from the film, and seeming like both the victims and cause of a carnage. A giant zone-shaped laser light then zooms out across the audience, and creates a tunnel into the inkiest of holes. It’s as if we are being drawn into the abyss. It’s a powerful image that is absence from the rest of the show.