Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan: Between East and West, Heaven and Earth

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By Stephanie Burridge

(800 words, four-minute read)

Sustainability, remaining fresh and engaging is challenging in the present day, content-saturated global world. Lin Hwai-min and Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan are among a handful of contemporary dance companies that have achieved this over 45 years of performing an ever-changing, diverse and provocative repertoire. With multiple accolades and awarded doctorates to his name, Lin is a creator of our times. The company identity is distinctive, current, yet deeply rooted in Chinese traditions; it is deservedly a household name in Taiwan and renowned around the world. In achieving this fame, the superb dancers have embraced stringent training to develop an innovative, east/west organic dance language that includes martial arts, qigong, calligraphy, western ballet and contemporary dance.

A key is working with the architecture of the Asian body. Lin Hwai-min creates his work close to the earth, exploiting the lower Asian centre of gravity. Dancers move in a liquid vertical plane, rising and falling through strong use of the legs and circular motions of the arms and torso, channeling spirituality and the somatic connection between body and mind. This trinity is inseparable in Lin Hwai-min’s choreography. Coming from a literary background and being a published author has impacted the choreographer’s emphasis on training well-rounded articulate artists – he is known to ask the dancers what books they are reading. This holistic concern extends to traditions like calligraphy that is also part of their training and underpins understanding of works like Cursive《行草》and Pine Smoke《松烟》. These choreographies not only extol the elegance of line as the dancers echo the movement of delicate brushstrokes and marks on paper; they juxtapose this within the emptiness of the spaces in between. Space becomes an equal catalyst for what is added and what is left behind in a rich transposition from paper to movement.

 

“Rice”. Photo: Liu Chen-hsiang

 

Cloud Gate constantly traverses the east/west divide of dance, moving between abstraction and episodic epics like Portrait of the Families 《家族合唱》and Rice《稻禾》. The pure abstraction of Moonwater《水月》 couples the eastern ethos of meditation and reflection in a poetic piece that fuses tai chi tao yin vocabulary with Bach’s Suite for Solo Cello. This melding of classicism from both domains is startling in its human resonance, beauty and timelessness, inviting a subliminal state. The dancers move so fluidly and effortlessly that they become links to a spiritual dimension transcending the theatre to exude a ritualistic aura where space, time and energy are the means, rather than the end purpose, of the dance – here form and content unite exquisitely.

Rice 《稻禾》 epitomises Lin’s search for an authentic interpretation of the seasonal planting of rice: flooding, sprouting, harvesting and burning – it is a song for the earth and a metaphor for the cycles of life. Immersion was a key to the creative process; the dancers heaved water and earth as they spent time alongside the peasant farmers in the countryside. Oozing sensuality, memorable moments include a duet in front of a small video frame for lovers amongst the spring grains of rice, and a woman giving birth in an intimate circle. Rice is staged in partnership with a beautiful projection that viscerally takes the audience into the Taiwanese landscape.

 

“White Water”. Photo Liu Chen-hsiang

 

The repertoire is deeply layered and meticulously researched, generating rich symbolism and imagery. Although the content of the repertoire spanning decades might vary, the context is always about home, belonging and identity, like in Portrait of the Families 《家族合唱》. Here a sense of urgency permeates as the dancers frantically leap, roll, yell and climb over each other in defiance of the prevailing politics of the day retelling the 1947 massacres in their island. It is bold and raw – an immediate call to arms to fight injustices and policies of exile and control.

Cloud Gate’s 45th Anniversary Gala Programme at the Esplanade Theatre is a retrospective of an extraordinary creative artist and features excerpts from nine of his most classic pieces, as Lin Hwai-min steps down at the end of 2019. Cloud Gate’s heritage is embodied in his vision and while the training of bodies is in place, and a rich repertoire remains, the future is incalculable. Expressing harmony, justice and humanity, his choreography reaches into the hearts and minds of the audience and engages them in a special way that is intangible and unique. Hwai-min’s choreography is realised through a complexity of movement, creativity and profound personal investigation into the context of his beloved country and his ability to connect past, present and future. A rare gift and legacy.


Cloud Gate 45th Anniversary Gala Programme — Lin Hwai-min: A Retrospective will be staged at the Esplanade Theatre on 3 – 4 May. Get your tickets here!

This article is sponsored by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Guest Contributor Stephanie Burridge (PhD) writes about dance and education in the Asia Pacific region. She is the Co-chair of the World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific Research and Documentation network. She was Artistic Director of Canberra Dance Theatre (1978-2001) and is Series Editor for Routledge Celebrating Dance in Asia and the Pacific.

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