Taiwan's traditions flow through Eternal Tides

Dance maven Lin Lee-Chen brings artful inspiration from her homeland to the PuSh Festival

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      Even over FaceTime, 16 time zones away in Taipei, where the Straight reaches her on a sunny morning, the grand maven of Taiwan’s contemporary-dance scene makes it clear she immerses herself in art in everything she does.

      It starts with her attire. Wearing her signature retro round granny glasses, Lin Lee-Chen has draped a scarlet silk scarf around the neck of her black brocade qipao. Sitting in her minimalistic apartment, she shows the Straight a book of her black-and-white calligraphic artworks—including images that dance across napkins she used as paper when she was on an airplane. (She is drawing all the time, and has since she was a little girl, she says through her translator.) And when the Straight asks her what kind of bird is making the loud, rhythmic chirping sound behind her, the best prize of all awaits.

      Her young interpreter, Sebastian Cheng, excitedly disappears off the screen and returns with a small, ornate gold birdcage. But as he holds it closer to the computer camera, it becomes apparent that it is not a feathered creature at all. Rather, it is a gigantic, shiny blue-green cricket creating the cacophony. Lin owns two as pets that provide the soundtrack to her life.

      The crickets illustrate how much the artistic director of Legend Lin Dance Theatre finds art in nature, and like so many in this island nation, feels connected to it—often on a spiritual level. As she puts it through her translator, “All the environment in Taiwan—the people, the land, all the animals—inspires me.”

      And so it is that her strange and epically striking dance work Eternal Tides, which shows at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, is both a wildly expressionistic piece of visual art, and a tribute to the cycles of the ocean and the fragility of the environment. Eerie, slow figures with long, curling fingernails and white-powdered bodies dance against yards of flowing silk. They wield towering feathers, long grass, and stones. Eternal Tides unfurls like a hallucinatory ancient ritual—and Lin draws deeply from Taiwan’s rich traditions, working in local, tribal religious and ceremonial rites.

      Dancers enter a trancelike state in Eternal Tides.
      Chin Cheng-Tsai

      “There are many ceremonies in Taiwan’s culture, all through the lifetime of a person—from birth to your wedding to death,” Lin says philosophically. “All the ceremonies connect the people, and at the same time all the people can connect to our ancestors, connect to the spirits.…We gain strength and new power through the rituals.”

      The piece, a follow-up to her “Heaven, Earth, and Man” trilogy, makes her painterly eye clear: displaying the same blacks and whites as her drawings, it is like a starkly beautiful moving artwork in itself.

      To perform the hypnotic piece, the dancers have to enter a trancelike state. “All the dancers have to be in a meditative state,” she says. “We are in half-dream, half-awake. The universe is like that.”

      Lin believes that by looking back on Taiwan’s distinct cultural traditions, its artists can move forward with something new. Here, she’s not just inspired by the movement and natural props of ancient ceremonies, she’s setting it all to the haunting sounds of gongs and traditional percussion and singing.

      But as much as Lin draws specifically from her beloved homeland for her work, her goal is to get at much more universal feelings she hopes will translate immediately with viewers here. “Although we start from our local culture, from the land, all the people in the world are all connected to each other,” she stresses. “Every single man has a similar process in their lives. Birth, death, and pain through desire: all these things happen in all parts of the world. Whatever our ages, our place, we face the same things.”