It is easy to look at Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, and think about how Taiwanese, or how Chinese, or how Asian, they seem.
All of this is relevant, but none of it forms the core of a bold and persistent artistic excavation. Lin Hwai-min has spent 45 years of hard work building up Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, and giving back to the contemporary dance scene in Taiwan — while honing his craft and making new dance works. He will step down from its helm as Artistic Director, handing the position over to Cheng Tsung-lung, the current artistic director of Cloud Gate 2.
This May, the company celebrates his achievements with a retrospective gala performance of excerpts from nine of his iconic works, right here in Singapore.
Singapore forms part of the sinophone world — at present, a majority of this city-state speaks or understands Chinese languages — and some of our citizens’ personal family histories are tied directly to the complicated history of Taiwan. But this nation maintains its connections to many parts of the world; as an ancient port, our ties to bloodlines and cultures span the earth.
In our world today, there is greater awareness of how personal identity — across race, class, gender, religion, nationality — is political, and how it can be politicised or weaponised. In Singapore, where distances between neighbours are small, and where communities are multi-racial, multi-lingual and multi-religious, sensitivities to difference and acceptance of plurality gives us the chance to look at a work of art and admire it for itself, but also perhaps appreciate the different influences it took on and reimagined.
A shift in discourse over Lin’s work has also occurred over the years — whereas the Orientalist dichotomy of East-West used to be the way his work was defined, today you will find more specific explanations about his journey into the body, and into a personal ethics of living.
In the course of his artistic life at Cloud Gate, Lin has dug deep into his roots and his land; he wanted to “dance his own dance”, forging a physical language for movement which, he quipped at the Esplanade’s ConversAsians conference (2010), aimed to be “inspired by forms developed by the masters with shorter legs”. To do so, he first invited Tsao Chun-lin from the National Fu Hsing Dramatic Arts Academy [now the National Taiwan College of Performing Arts] to instruct dancers on the fundamentals of Chinese opera. In the 1990s, he invited the practitioners of ancient physical arts, Hsiung Wei and Adam Chi Hsu, to train his dancers. This resulted in a practice called, Tai Chi Dao Yin — elements of Tai Chi integrated with dance by Hsiung. Tai Chi Dao Yin emphasised rhythmic breathing, the channeling of qi (energy) and spiraling body movements. The vocabulary of dancing we see from Cloud Gate came from these training methodologies, honed over the years. While their training is consistent and repetitive, however, each dance work is tuned and calibrated, and so each performance requires the dancers to shift their states and personalities. Precision and sensitivity are key — like the calligrapher, each brush stroke comes from a movement in the mind, each mark carries a unique dynamic, and each moment creates a space of freedom.
It takes a relentless visionary to cultivate something new — before Cloud Gate, the curvilinear patterns, strongly grounded body, and the deft ability to switch between meditation and explosion did not exist the way we will see on stage. Even the renowned martial arts masters who worked with the artist were pulled into entirely new realms, inventing alongside Lin and his dancers, as Cloud Gate began its journey.
While nodding at the genetic variance of shorter legs and deeper squats in much of Asia— a generalisation no doubt, but one rooted in reality — Lin’s epiphany is not so much that he wanted to define himself against an “other”, be it western Classical or folk or modern dance. It is that he wanted to find something that would suit his environs, that would feel true to himself and to the people he has chosen to work with. In the course of his life, he has reimagined movement forms and invented a stage language where the audience can connect with the stillness, breath, and energy of the performing bodies on stage. As Lin says, “Instead of invading space, we now internalise our focus and discover a new world: our own bodies.”
Besides looking within, Lin’s concern for connecting with the community has meant that he would bring his work to the towns and villages of Taiwan, making it accessible to all. Annually, the company stages free open-air performances, reaching 40,000 – 60,000 people. They also have a policy of reaching out to disaster-stricken areas to bring comfort through art. Although the practice of dancing and moving encourages the dancer to look within, this internal focus has also led to an external activation of influencing the world beyond — to also be introspect, to imbibe the beauty of stillness, and to reconnect with the poeticism of nature reflected in his works.
The serenity we will see on stage comes with plenty of struggle. But it is a struggle that every man can connect with. In fact, when Cloud Gate ceased operations between 1988-1991, it was a conversation with a taxi driver that gave him the encouragement to persist in his path. That conversation made him realise how the arts mattered to people, how his profession as an artist was meaningful to others too.
In the line-up for the retrospective gala, we will see in Singapore, there will be excerpts included from Moon Water (1998), Cursive (2001) and Portrait of the Families (1997). World famous for his ability to create philosophical polemics and poetic imagery, it will be insightful to see how his art has also ranged to include the voices of victims’ families in Taiwan’s 228 massacre in 1947. Just as the Taiwanese government found its way to reconcile a people to its turbulent history in 1995, the artist reflects a new peace, while honouring the real pain of individuals. To watch his work, Lin often suggests that an audience just relax and allow what goes on onstage to reach them. Reading the notes and his references can come later.
Among the honours Lin Hwai-min has received are honorary doctorates from six universities in Taiwan and Hong Kong, the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters from the French Ministry of Culture, and the Honorary Fellow Trinity Laban, London. He was also celebrated by Time Magazine as one of the “Asia’s Heroes.” In 2013, he was honoured with the First Rank Order of Brilliant Star with Special Grand Cordon, the highest honour from the government of Taiwan.
In 2013, he received the prestigious Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement. Previous awardees include Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Pina Bausch, and William Forsythe. Lin is the first recipient based in Asia.
Cloud Gate 45th Anniversary Gala Programme — Lin Hwai-min: A Retrospective at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, 3 & 4 May.
This post is sponsored by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.