During the post-performance talk-back, Lin Hwai-min (affectionately known as Lin Laoshi, Teacher Lin) quoted John F. Kennedy’s 1961 speech for inspiring him and his dancers to start Cloud Gate Dance Theatre. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”.
Words about patriotism and individual action, spoken by a charismatic leader, resounding throughout history. Lin’s dances might only echo on in the memories of those who have performed and seen his works – there are no plans to maintain his repertory in the company. He spoke about generational change, praising the talents of his successor Cheng Tsung-Lung, but also remarking that he doubts the “internet generation” would want to train in the way his company is known to, holding half-squat positions for 40 minutes at a time. What happens next remains to be seen, but the intention of the night was clear – Lin’s Retrospective Gala was put together not to look back, but as a gift to bid his dancers goodbye. Seamlessly strung together from fragments of past work, the dancers illuminated the theatre with an intense awareness of their bodies honed by years of tuning into themselves.
For much of the evening, I sat on edge with my jaw stupidly open in awe. Not merely because of the spectacle of the dancers’ famously-controlled precision and virtuosic athleticism, but because I found myself deeply invested when they walked together, exhaled together, left a soloist to crouch alone with her wrists placed precisely in a spiral. I enjoyed noticing the simple details in each piece. In “Moon Water” (1998) they formed duets as men and women, then blended into a diagonal while one male dancer slowly disappeared behind a curtain. This is the legendary work that was selected by The New York Times as the “Best Dance of 2003”, and I could see why. The musical ebb and flow of Bach’s Cello Suites flowed within and through the dancing bodies. Music and dance were one.
This is true no matter whether the music was classical, or by contemporary composers like Qu Xiao-Song and John Cage. In “Character Yong” and the excerpt from “Pine Smoke” (2003), parts 1 and 2 of CURSIVE: A Trilogy, the dancers dressed in white and black, the projection image revealing calligraphic text and then images of cells. Each element was connected organically. The soloist, veteran dancer and the company’s rehearsal director, Chou Chang-Ning, commanded the theatre with powerful attacks and fluid lines shaped into corners. But she was always related to the set, to the sound, to the space – each element equal to the other. In these works, the space-between was as important as the space occupied by the human, an embodiment of calligraphic philosophy.
The dancers’ expressions are often meditative or beatific, as if they are about to ascend into a higher spiritual existence. The dancing of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre is often described as mystical and spiritual. This was most clear in the older dancers, who have become so at one with the dance, that their presence and every movement was almost as if pre-ordained. I only realise, however, that the dancers I most take notice of are usually (not always) older, and more deeply embedded in the practices of Cloud Gate, upon checking the programme notes. These seem to be ageless bodies; I even find myself thinking that the movement style of the company seems to activate some kind of epigenetic regenerative mechanism as if their dance can re-pattern and reverse the natural ageing process.
A few seats from me, a young girl complains quietly during the second half of the evening. I am impressed she seemed enraptured otherwise; only the maturer sexual connotations of “Rice” (2013) drew more (completely understandable) restlessness. I do not blame her, there are times where adults lose their concentration too. The lady next to me tells me the continuous action of ensemble pieces help her to stay interested, while it is during the longer solos that she finds her concentration waning. A friend tells me the opposite – to her, the longer solos seemed more emotionally moving.
In the duet from “Rice” (2013), we see the wind running through rice fields. A man and a woman move together in a square of light to the sound of a woman’s operatic singing. They roll and curl around each other in athletic displays, undulate and writhe when the woman’s voice hits a climax, and continue into the spectacle of entwining their bodies vertically, taking turns to bear each other’s weight. At one point I recall an earlier image from the duet in “Bamboo Dream” (2001), where one dancer is held by and under the other’s legs in horse stance. In one, the woman was held by the man; in the other, the man by the woman. My feminist self reads these details on alert, noticing that in “Bamboo Dream” the man often overtly dominated the woman, beginning by telling her where to look, while in “Rice” they seemed like more equal partners, melded together rather than grappling aggressively with each other for power.
Having us see these dancers as men and women is very deliberate – they are typically partnered together or grouped together, and dressed differently; a balance of yin and yang, or X and Y chromosomes, one might say. There is some overt social commentary in “How Can I Live On Without You” (2011), a huge shift from everything else in its theatrical campiness; the women typecast as desiring men, flirtatious, seductive, the men typecast as vigorous, strong, anonymous. A man dances an entire solo in jerks and stops, stuck in the image of himself in the mirror. Poor men. Poor women. Always posing for each other. Did Lin Hwai-min create a “woke” musical theatre piece? Is this a joke? I am confounded and amused.
The entire evening ends with a murmur of satisfaction from the audience. Wafting like pine smoke, waiting with bated breath, black and white flowing together. The dancers move in unison, building upon very subtle motifs – like fluttering their fingers – interspersed with simply standing or kneeling and breathing. Then, one by two by three, they run circles around the group and leave. It is unclear what motivates them to leave. Then the last couple run together, the curtains close and leave a tiny square for the woman to dance in before closing entirely. The evening has come full circle. But we are now in tinier spaces. I get chills just thinking about it.