Bamboo Dream, danced by the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, takes place in a bamboo grove. Austin MC Wang's set doesn't just paint trees on a backdrop; there are dozens of them, a line-up by the footlights, clumps and circles further back. The dancers weave in and out between the trunks.
Cloud Gate, founded in 1973 and named for a ritual dance, was the first modern dance company in the Chinese-speaking world. Bamboo Dream is choreographed by Lin Hwai-min, the founder. His training included American modern dance, Chinese opera and classical court dance in Japan and Korea. His dancers have a similarly eclectic training. They're strong, but have a disconcertingly remote performance style.
Bamboo Dream is built on ideas of time. Chang Tsan-Tao's lighting is precise and beautiful. It opens in early-morning grey light and mist. Later, the trees are dappled in afternoon light, golden and slanting. Chang lights seasons, too; for autumn, the trees are lit with yellow. Snow falls in the final scene.
Lin's choreography draws on different styles. Dancers extend legs in balletic positions - pointed toes, leg turned out. Then they flex the raised foot, curling it in, spreading the toes. Dancers move calmly from one vocabulary to another, but they don't stress the contrasts.
The music is a mixture, too. Hwang Sheng-kae plays Chinese flute on stage, alongside taped selections from Arvo Pärt. That means 70 minutes of reverential humming, with plaintive flute calls. The music creates a hushed atmosphere without offering much to the choreographer. Lin sets his steps to Pärt's repeating patterns, but they don't give him much rhythmic variety.
In the summer scene, the company stomps through, crouching, shaking fingers. A man throws himself into violent jumps. A woman cartwheels out of her partner's arms. There's a general solemnity about Lin's choreography; the grappling duets could be dramatic, but even quick movements are performed with t'ai chi evenness. It's the same in the best scene: a group of women walk into the snow, red robes and loose hair blowing. Each has her own personal breeze: a man crouched behind, with an electric fan. The women sway and billow; the men crawl under their skirts, blowing them up and out.
Like the rest of Bamboo Dream, this is soberly danced. It's funny, but are we meant to laugh? I think so, because this snow and scarlet scene is interrupted by dancers with brooms who sweep up the confetti snow, tidy the flute player off stage, and start dismantling the bamboo grove. Still deadpan.
Ma, Akram Khan's latest work, is brilliantly accomplished and very irritating. Khan layers dance, music and stories. He interrupts dances to tell stories, then interrupts those with artful hesitations. The confusion may be deliberate, but that doesn't make me like it.
Ma is a boundary-crossing collaboration by high-profile artists. Texts are by Hanif Kureishi. Riccardo Nova's score mixes Indian and Western classical instruments. The lighting by Mikki Kunttu goes from delicate patterns to blinding lights.
As the piece goes on, the relation of step and story gets clearer. We find out why the vocalist sang his first song while hanging upside down: Khan's own story is about hanging from a tree as a child. That also explains the first dance, with its repetition of awkward poses.
There are lovely dance moments. The dancers move with fearless attack, throwing themselves into taut, off-balance turns, spinning to the floor and whirling up. Other steps reinvent Khan's training in the Indian classical form Kathak. Hands arch, and pluck space; upper bodies are flexible, gracefully poised. Ma lacks cumulative force, but it has impressive moments of real, if brief, power.