Merging the Tradition with the Modern
- The 30th Anniversary of Cloud Gate Dance Troupe -
By Andrew C.C. Huang
(This article originally appeared in Taiwan News)
For people who feel intimidated by the opaqueness of modern dance or doubt the validity of Asian dancers performing this decidedly western art form, Taiwan’s Cloud Gate Dance troupe has proved that modern dance can be very “Chinese” and could be enjoyable by all.
Cloud Gate Dance Troupe, the premier and the first ever dance troupe in Taiwan, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. The troupe celebrated by staging the world premier of “Cursive II” in Taipei on August 30 and a revival of its classic work “Legacy” for three months ending August 26.
After the world premier in Taipei, “Cursive II” will move to have its international premier at the opening of Melbourne International Arts Festival on October 9.
“I feel incredibly fortunately to being celebrating our 30th anniversary. It has been almost mission impossible,” laughs the troupe’s founder/director Lin Hwai-min. “I think we survived because of my enormously devoted dancers and because of this society which has a craving for arts.”
Lin Hwai-min derives the company’s name form an ancient Chinese myth. According to legend, Cloud Gate is the name of the oldest dance known in China, a ritual dance of some 5,000 years ago.
This year, Cloud Gate sets yet another historical precedent. In recognition of Cloud Gate’s outstanding artistic achievement on the international stage, Taipei’s city government renamed Fu-Hsing North Road, Lane 231 -- home of Cloud Gate’s office -- as “Cloud Gate Lane.” This is the first time Taiwan bestows the honor of naming a place after a living artist and/or artistic group.
Cloud Gate's rich repertoire has its roots in Asian myths, folklore, and aesthetics. Choreographer Lin seamlessly merges the story of Asian myths with the western art form, the modern dance.
Hong Kong’s revered critic Hu Chu-ren has proclaimed that “Cloud Gate’s works has solved the problem that has puzzled Chinese people since the historical 5-4 movement in the 1920’s. Its works prove that tradition and modernity can coexist in harmony…that Chinese culture and western culture and not contradictory but rather compliment each other.”
Cloud Gate has toured extensively overseas throughout Europe, Asia, Australia, and America continents. The troupe has performed at high-profile events such as New York’s BAM Next Wave Festival, the Sydney 2000 Olympic Arts Festival, Lyon Biannual Dance Festival, Melbourne Festival, the 25th anniversary festival of Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal, Sadler's Wells Theatre London, Deutsche Opera Berlin, and the Kennedy Center.
Since founding the troupe, Lin has metamorphasized style-wise as a choreographer. The troupe’s early works in the early 70’s drew inspirations from classical Chinese myth such as “Tale of the White Serpent” and “Dreams of the Red Chamber.” From 1978 on, Lin fashioned a string of socially concerned works such “Legacy” and “Portrait of the Family” that contemplate on Taiwan’s identity in its historical context. The troupe went on a hiatus from 1988 to 1991 because of creative exhaustion and financial setback. Then came the next decade of golden age into the millennium when the troupe’s well-financed structure allows it to put out spiritual and abstract works such as “Songs of the Wanderers,” “Bamboo Dream,” “Moon Water” and “Cursive” part one and two.
The troupe’s trademark is its outlandishly beautiful visual designs and often slow-tempo dances that don’t necessarily show off the performers’ well-polished techniques. The troupe’s works do not attack you with their velocity and accurateness; rather they let you soak in slowly the beauty and philosophies they are trying to convey.
Lin uses an unique multi-disciplinary program to train his dancers. In addition the dancing techniques from both the East and the West, his dancers are required to study Taichi, meditation, calligraphy and even arts appreciation classes.
The result is that many of the troupe’s work grow organically from this seemingly digressive curriculum. Meditation engendered the serene “Songs of the Wanderers,” Taichi inspired the pensive “Moon Water” while calligraphy gave birth to the “Cursive” series.
“Cursive” premiered in 2002 to acclaim with the dancers dancing and kicking to blown-up images of jet-black Chinese calligraphy characters projected onto the stage.
This year’s new work “Cursive II” takes another direction with the dancers prancing in a more meditative mood against five different colors of Chinese calligraphy ink.
Cloud Gate performs island-wide in venues ranging from the lavish National Theatre in Taipei to mid-sized cultural centers in various cities to high-school auditoriums in remote villages. In order to serve the public -- especially those who don’t have the deep pocket to buy the tickets -- Cloud Gate gives free outdoor performances about four times a year, drawing audiences of 30,000 to 80,000 per performance.
Cloud Gate Dance Troupe 2 was founded in 1999 to cultivate young choreographers and provide more job opportunities for professional dancers. In 1998, Cloud Gate Dance School was founded to bring the joy of dance to students of all ages.
Cloud Gate Dance Troupe 1 now specializes in international touring while Cloud Gate 2 takes over the duty of community performance. Both troupes have about two dozens dancers in them
Most of Cloud Gate's productions have been made into dance films. Among them, “Songs of the Wanderers” was filmed in the Netherlands, “Moon Water” was filmed in France, while “Bamboo Dream” was filmed in Germany by RM Associates, London. These productions are available on DVD and have been broadcast on television in many countries since their release.
This month, Taiwan’s Public Television is airing a three-part documentary chronicling Cloud Gate’s achievements and evolution.
“For me, there is no so-called highbrow and lowbrow arts,” Lin asserts. “Human beings have a very basic ability to enjoy and appreciate arts. Even the most uneducated village peasants can tell and enjoy a good show when they see it.”
As reality proves it, a near 100-year-old grandma in a free outdoor performance is captured gushing “beautiful! Blessing to You!” to Lin in the documentary series airing on Public Television.
Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang -- whose “Vive L’Amour” (1994) won the Silver Screen Award at Venice Film Festival and “The River” (1997) won the Silver Berlin Bear at Berlin Film Festival – has his take on Cloud Gate’s broad appeal to the audience. “Some audiences resist it at first because they haven’t seen it before. They only heard that modern dance is very ‘artsy’ and the dancers are topless or scantily clad,” he laughs. “But when they see a Cloud Gate’s performance, they enjoy and appreciate it.”
Lin is a legend himself in the Chinese world. Born into a prestigious family clan with his grand-grand-father as a governor under China’s Ching Dynasty, Lin’s own father has served the posts as both the Minister of Internal Affairs and the Minister of Transportation of Taiwan. With this aristocratic background, Lin went through a childhood when all his grades must be straight A’s – A minus is not enough.
He achieved famed as a writer by publishing the novel “Cicada” at the age of 22. He then went on to earn an MFA from the Writer’s Workshop at University of Iowa – a sojourn that also allowed him to take dance classes and swerved his career track into a dancer/choreographer.
Despite his status as a master and a pioneer of Taiwan’s art movement, Lin has a very easy-going manner in person. While many of his colleagues in Taiwan’s art scene respectfully call him “teacher” – a term reserved for a highly respected person in Chinese custom even if he has not taught you personally – he laughs heartily and jokes around with colleagues who are his junior. As a choreographer and dancer, Lin has kept his body in remarkable shape even at the age of 55. He currently sports a crew cut with gray hairs left untreated among the black hairs – a sign that he is not intimidating by aging and proudly wears his gray mane as symbol of maturity and wisdom.
During an exclusive interview with Taiwan News, Lin switches from his usual laughters-and-flancing-hands mode into a serene sternness that commands respect and attention.
Asked about Cloud Gate’s evolution of style over its three phases, he explains, “In the beginning I had to rely on existing materials to create the dances. With my literary background, I naturally turn to classic Chinese myths and tales.”
Cloud Gate’s first socially-aware work “Legacy” – a work about the brave pioneers of Taiwan at the turn of 20th century -- premiered in December 1978, the same day when the U.S. cut off its diplomatic relation with Taiwan under the pressure from communist China. The timing of “Legacy” was pure serendipity. Taiwanese people were outraged with the U.S.’s decision and responded fervently to “Legacy.” This work immediately became a classic and has since stand firm in the troupe’s repertoire.
“I have always been a socially committed person and want to serve the community and make commentary about our society through my works,” says Lin. “It took five years for us to have the confidence to march into the territory of socially aware dance works. Thus came ‘Legacy’ and ‘Portrait of the Family.”
The troupe’s style during the 90’s and into the new millennium is abstract and non-narrative. But behind all these seemingly impenetrable abstraction, there is the simple message of faith.
“I made my first trip to India in 1994. I was extremely moved to realize that Buddha is not a god but rather a human being too,” Lin says. “My works these years are about being spiritual. We all need to find that peace of mind in us.”
Asked about how he manages to balance and even merge the traditional with the modern, and the East with the West in his works, he replies matter-of-factly, “I don’t see any conflicts between tradition and modernity or between eastern and western cultures. They can co-exist in harmony.”
Lin adds that his work reflects the environment of Taiwan and his growing up experience. “We live in this island that is so multicultural. We enjoy and consume Chinese, western, Japanese and aboriginal cultures at the same time. We all grew up reading literatures and watching movies from nations around the globe,” Lin elucidates. “How could you say that these different cultures contradict each other? We already live this life that’s multicultural.”
Asked how he selects his dancers, Lin responds, “I select based on their bodies and the personality of their movements. Height is not a criteria. I hate uniformity of body height.”
Regarding Cloud Gate’s unique training curriculum that includes dances of eastern and western disciplines, and even Taichi, calligraphy and art appreciation, Lin explains, “I believe that body goes with the mind.”
“A good piece of dance is not about the dancers striking beautiful gestures and move at incredible speed,” he concludes. “It’s about the culture and the refined mind that are reflected through their bodies. The body reflects the psyche.”
Asked how he envisions the future for Cloud Gate, Lin says optimistically, “I hope Cloud Gate can go one performing for another 30 years or forever.”
“I am perfectly capable of enjoying my own life after I retire from the work of Cloud Gate,” says Lin. “But I hope to find someone who will take over the duty and continue with this art form. The torch will be passed.”
(“Cursive II” runs from 8/30 to 9/6 in Taipei and from 9/12 to9/20 in Kaohsiung. The revival of “Legacy”’s ran from 8/21 to 8/26 in Taipei. For ticket info please call 02-2784-1011 or check out www.ticket.acer121.com “Cursive II” will run from 10/9 to 10/11 in Melbourne. For ticket info please call 61-3-9662-4242 or check out www.melbournefestival.com.au )