Cloudgate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, Barbican Theatre, London
Mayerling, Royal Opera House, London

A moving sculpture for the post-9/11 world

Unlike the Olympics, the annual Dance Umbrella season has never had, and never thought it needed, an opening pageant. But it got one by default this year with the latest work from the choreographer Lin Hwai-Min and his phenomenal t'ai chi-based Cloudgate Dance Theatre of Taiwan.

While Lin's work has always been spectacular – tons of rice rained down in Songs of the Wanderers; in Moon Water he flooded the stage – for Wind Shadow he has collaborated with Cai Guo-Qiang, visual director of the Beijing Olympics' ceremonies. The result is both more collar-grabbing and more political.

The serene first half gives no clue of what's to come. The opening image is of a white kite, held aloft by streams of air generated by fans hidden in the wings. Before long the air is crowded with fluttering kites, or being sliced by dancers wielding room-sized flags. Others appear as pale angels sprouting tall, feathery wings that tremble in the breeze. The smooth, meditative movement slows the heartbeat, and the interplay of air and airy substance is hypnotic.

Enter the shadows: faceless figures sheathed in matt black from head to toe (interesting how simply covering the face and hands gives a sinister effect, summoning burglars or malicious spirits). Yet at first these shadows behave as shadows should, ingeniously lying on their backs to mirror the movements of the standing dancers, their ankles linked. Silhouetted against the white floor, delicately shifting kaleidoscope patterns emerge like complex designs in mosaic tiles.

Little by little, though, the shadows take over, seeming to suck the life out of the dancers they're attached to. They swarm and muster like a plague of giant ants or rats. Or they clump together, their human shapes no longer discernable. At one point the lighting gives their massed, upturned bottoms the texture and colour of dusty boulders.

This is where the aural assault begins, as the sounds of machine-gun rounds and bomb blasts make you want to cover your ears. The giant white flags, still waving, offer themselves as screens for the projection of frantically overlapping images. What might, in another context, be displays of Chinese fireworks are more likely the sparks from exploding buildings, the splatter of inkblots on the back wall the work of a bomber seen from the air.

A programme note says that this is a piece for the post-9/11 world, and when the sky rains black ash, the reference is at its most pointed. What happens next, though, tips the imagination into a terrifying unknown, as smoke engulfs the struggling dancers, followed by the startling formation of a sulphurous vortex which sucks every living thing into its dark centre.

It's a dazzling coup de théâtre, but presses home the extent to which Lin's fine dancers take second place to special effects. Does it matter? No. Wind Shadow is a thrilling extension of Lin's ongoing exploration of the combined power of kinetic sculpture and the elements. It may be more art installation than dance, but it's a knock-out, whatever you call it.

The week's other big-season opener showed dance at another extreme. Mayerling was Kenneth MacMillan's last big ballet, his darkest, and – structurally, at least – his finest. There is less of the padding that weakens his hits Manon and Romeo and Juliet, more of the scalpel-to-the-flesh exposure of human failing. Failing may be too mild a word for what ailed Crown Prince Rudolf, the morphine-addicted heir to the Hapsburg Empire, who in 1889 blew out his brains in a suicide pact with his teenage mistress.

The revelation of this revival, with the cast led by Edward Watson, is the extent to which Rudolf's tragedy hinged on relations with his mother (an impressive Cindy Jourdain), the pair emotionally paralysed by a shared fear of inherited madness. Whether real or imagined, the effects on Rudolf were crucifying, and the ballet doesn't flinch from exploring the full horror of his life's disfunction. The wedding-night duet is virtually rape, Rudolf's taunting of his young wife, by taking her to brothels, grotesquely cruel. His gun obsession, his drug habit, fester unchecked. When he meets his match in the young Mary Vetsera (Mara Galeazzi, giving it all she's got), his end is sealed. The marvel is that MacMillan makes all this watchable, finding a physical language to show a man so far buried in self-loathing that he takes perverse sexual pleasure in his death. Watson turns in a horribly believable performance. The company responds by doing what it does best, finding superb dramatic subtlety in a work of violent extremes.

'Mayerling' to 10 Nov (020-7304 4000)

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
    France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

    Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

    Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser