Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan is a rare combination of the ancient and the cutting edge—a seamless blend of age-old Chinese arts like tai chi and contemporary visuals and movement. But to the company’s founder and choreographer Lin Hwai-min, it’s just a reflection of his home country.
“To be Taiwanese means many things,” the affable Asian arts icon says from a tour stop in New York, where he reports his acclaimed company has just earned a standing ovation at the Kennedy Centre the night before. “We have the Internet and we pray at our temple at the same time. We go to have a little cup of espresso at Starbucks, but we take the time to carefully make a Chinese tea. That’s Taiwan: with the old and the new, with all of the local culture and the new culture.”
Lin trained at Merce Cunningham’s and Martha Graham’s New York studios in the late ’60s and early ’70s, finally launching Cloud Gate back at home in 1973. It was the first contemporary dance troupe in any Chinese-speaking country. He began by staging fresh spins on Chinese operas and epics; it wasn’t till the ’90s that he started bringing in the “old masters” to teach his dancers meditation, martial arts, and qigong, and that’s when his unique, new dance vocabulary really started to develop.
Lin, who is also a celebrated writer in his country, sums up the story in a much more philosophical, and poetic, way. “In the ’60s, Taiwan saw its first production of Swan Lake by a western country,” says the artist, who was there to witness it. “The audience was happy, but in the foyer, a lady said in a loud voice, ”˜We will never be able to do it.’ Then she announced with great authority: ”˜Because our legs are too short.’ I was young and cocky, and I said, ”˜To hell with you!’
“But when I grew older and wiser, what she said became gospel truth.”¦Classical ballet is about elongating, and our traditional disciplines squat down and get close to the earth. So I said, ”˜Since our legs are shorter, why don’t we start to learn the old disciplines?’ ”
Today, his company of 24 dancers studies ballet and modern dance, but the traditional arts are an even heavier part of their training. Lin points out that his artists even take classes in calligraphy. Mostly, Cloud Gate’s approach is different from western dance companies’ in one basic way, he explains: “It’s not just physical training but really training of the mind. You are the movement; you don’t make the movement.”
Vancouverites will get the chance to witness the effect firsthand when Moon Water comes to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre this Friday and Saturday (February 5 and 6) as part of the Cultural Olympiad. It’s a stylized, otherworldly evocation of yin and yang, with real water pooling on the stage and mirrors hanging from above to reflect the performers’ billowy white costumes. Inspired by tai chi, it’s set unexpectedly to the sounds of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Six Suites for Solo Cello.
Lin, who has seen the work performed in 22 countries over 12 years, explains the meditative result: “In each performance, the audience is still, and it’s as silent as a church and very intense. You could hear a needle drop. At the end some will stand and clap, but some will have tears; others will stay in the theatre to look at the flooded, empty stage.”
The choreographer, who is constantly creating new work, says he’s recently returned to the theme of water for Listening to the River, set to premiere in March. “I’ve lived by a river for more than 20 years and I think I am hooked by the water,” he says. “I just keep coming back to this thing of the water flowing and life goes on.”
Life flows on, and so does Cloud Gate, a company celebrating its 37th birthday this year and earning accolades in the West. Lin has seen many honours at home—he’s a two-time winner of the National Award for Arts, and has both a day (August 21) and a street in Taipei named for his company—but today he’s even prouder of a recent lifetime-achievement award that the Movimentos Festival gives out once every five years in Wolfsburg, Germany. “I said, ”˜Me, from Asia?!’ Because there are so many big names in choreography in Europe,” he says.
Lin’s ties to Taiwan and its ancient traditions still run deep, but the “synthesizing dance genius”, as Time Asia once dubbed him, stresses his work is created to have universal appeal. It requires no knowledge of tai chi or the classic arts at all.
“Come in and relax,” he says to Moon Water audiences. “Drop your encyclopedia at the gate of the theatre. This is an experience of the senses.”