Elemental Matters

Donald Hutera on Cloud Gate Dance Theatre


Donald Hutera

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Something amazing tends to happen to people when they watch Cloud Gate Dance Theatre. The work of this internationally acclaimed troupe from Taiwan is, in essence, based on a fusion of Western techniques and Asian traditions. And yet in the hands of its artistic director, the master choreographer Lin Hwai-min, the company’s unique mingling of styles yields many different and often elemental forms of expression.

On previous UK visits Cloud Gate’s dancers have showered in a non-stop spray of dyed yellow rice, or occupied an onstage bamboo grove. The last time they were in London they transformed themselves into human calligraphy. No matter what they do, the extraordinary discipline and mesmerising dynamics of their movement manages to impact upon a viewer’s perception in a way that probably no other dance company in the world can. In the words of the Chicago Sun-Times, a performance by Cloud Gate has ‘the power to change your metabolism.’

‘That’s what I’ve been working on,’ says Lin, grinning. A cheerful, humble and intense sexagenarian with a huge appetite for culture of all kinds, he founded Cloud Gate in 1973.  This was not long after returning to Taipei from America, where he’d studied the methods of modern dance pioneers like Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. Lin, too, was a pioneer. Named after an ancient ritual dance, Cloud Gate was the first modern dance company to emerge from a Chinese-speaking community.

Deep Breathing

In its early days the company’s work drew upon a blend of Chinese opera, folklore, literature (Lin himself is a published writer) and contemporary Western styles. Then, after the lifting of martial law in 1987, Lin created productions based on an examination of Taiwan’s sometimes painful historical and political legacy. Regardless of the subject matter, his dances have always carried a strong visual stamp. ‘Nowadays I don’t work on the visual surface,’ he claims, ‘or from literature or politics. I work on Chi, the energy. To me a performance is an exchange of breathing across the footlights. That’s what draws the people in.’

More than a decade ago Lin’s beloved company embarked upon what he calls ‘a gradual yet drastic change of direction. Cloud Gate used to do modern dance, ballet and Beijing Opera movement. But I wanted to go back to the source.’ For him that meant traditional Asian physical disciplines including meditation, martial arts and Tai Chi Tao Yin, an ancient form of Chi Kung. ‘East and West are truly different,’ Lin elaborates. ‘Here’s a Gothic church, and there is the Great Wall. Movement in the East all starts with a low, squatting position. It’s very grounded. From the soles of the feet you draw the energy up to the point between your sexual organ and you’re a**hole. That’s how the dancers do the things they do.’

Initially the company members balked at this rigorous new training regime. ‘They hated it! They just did it because they had to. But you have to understand that some dancers had wanted to be a Swan Queen since they were kiddies.’ Despite an initial reluctance, says Lin, they’ve adapted beautifully. The results — including Cloud Gate’s rice-laden performance Songs of the Wanderers, from 1994, and the equally exceptional abstract dance Moon Water in 1998 that is touring the UK this spring — have been highly gratifying.

‘When their bodies were seasoned in strength and ability,’ says Lin, ‘I realised that I could bring in the calligraphy.’ This is a reference to the recent Cursive trilogy of full-length dance works, each based upon the strong yet subtle range of energies associated with Chinese brushwork. ‘We have never tried to represent, demonstrate or explore the literature of calligraphy,’ he explains, adding, ‘Calligraphy, like movement, is an exercise of breathing. For us it’s a springboard to move, and an excuse to dance.’

Not that Cloud Gate needs an excuse to dance. It’s not too far off the mark to state that dance as executed by this company is astonishingly controlled while, at the same time, it seems to spring serenely from an utterly natural source. Lin tries to explain this dual effect as it occurs in Moon Water: ‘Each single breath is choreographed. There is not even a piece of hair that is improvised.’ And yet, he says,  ‘Most of our body consists of water, so we should flow like liquid.’ Significant, too, is the underlying emphasis on spirals in his choreography: ‘The earth spirals around the sun. Everything spirals. That’s the most organic movement in the universe.’  This blend of rigorous exactitude and calm, unforced circular motion produces a beautiful tension that is a central part of Cloud Gate’s onstage signature.

Raising the Level

Whether they are on the road or at home in Taipei, Lin encourages his dancers to attend lectures, visit museums and galleries and expose themselves to other art forms and cultures. ‘You need to become illiterate in order to be a good dancer,’ he says. Example: last summer, during a seven-week tour that included a string of performances in Germany, the company carted along more than 200 books in boxes. ‘The books traveled with the cargo. The dancers could always pick one up, read it and by the next station or port come backstage to exchange it for a new one. I try to make their minds work this way. It brings up the whole level of what they do. Otherwise they sit in the hotel, or backstage.

‘Of course the most successful product of Cloud Gate is JJ,’ says Lin, employing the Westernised nickname of the brilliant dancer turned rehearsal director Lee Ching-Chun. Having joined the company in 1983, she has since evolved into being Lin’s associate artistic director and the chief consultant for the company’s dance school.

Watching Lee conduct company class, as I did last year in Wiesbaden, you begin to understand his complete confidence in her. The room is pin-drop quiet as she puts the dancers through their paces — a concentrated, eclectic 90-minute mixture of meditative yoga-like positions, balletic balances and floor-based movement a la Martha Graham, plus livelier, sometimes stamping steps that suggest martial arts, folk dance and hopping, jazz-based shuffles.

Asked about how he selects new dancers for Cloud Gate, Lin reveals that he generally defers to Lee. ‘She chooses and I will say yes, or no. Sometimes I get a stubborn bone in my body and I’ll say, “I want this girl or that boy.” But mostly she tells me what to do. Basically I let her run the company. She will rehearse the dancers perfectly to keep the correct discipline. I just step in to make it stay alive by changing or twisting things here and there, or encouraging them to break the mould. I try to destroy what we may have done last night so that they are different – so that it’s maybe more entertaining to me. I have to do this because I am watching every night, and I want to see something different.’

‘There are dancers who are so good with their bodies,’ Lin continues, ‘that they make things faster. You have to slow them down. When they get more confident with their material I add more things, more details for them to do within each phrase of movement. It’s always very subtle. If you just insert a breath in and out, it can change the whole texture of their dancing.’

The Internal Conversation

Lee knows a thing or two about textured dancing a la Cloud Gate, most of which is achieved only after an exceptional amount of hard work and dedication. ‘This company is not about what you can do,’ she avows, ‘but about what you’re willing to do.’ It makes sense when she says that the quality most sought after in prospective dancers is ‘flexibility of mind.’

Lee was 17 years old when she first saw Cloud Gate nearly a quarter-century ago, at a time when Lin himself was still performing. In 1981 she attended a summer camp run by the company, officially joining it after a standard apprenticeship period of two years. Her loyalty to Cloud Gate and its creator are plain. ‘If Mr Lin had been born in Europe he probably would have achieved his success much earlier,’ she says.

The company’s international breakthrough didn’t happen until the 1990s, by which point Cloud Gate had persevered through two decades or so of almost perpetual near-bankruptcy and even a two and a half year period when Lin was compelled to disband the company. ‘It was difficult for us to survive,’ says Lee. ‘We were always on the verge of a crisis. I think that’s why the dancers work so hard. We know that we are different, so we work double-hard.’

‘Sometimes when you finish a solo you don’t sense the audience at all. Something pulls you out of yourself. You’re not aware how you should be looking; if the pulling thing works you always look right. You realise some part of your life through your performance.'

Moon Water

Lee is articulate about the paradoxical and quintessentially Asian philosophy that so eloquently envelops Cloud Gate’s dancers. ‘They can be soft and strong. There’s a motion within their stillness, and stillness within their motion. Stillness is more difficult than action.’ The underlying idea, she says, is ‘to move as minimally and organically as possible. Every day we try to achieve a sense of attention from inside. To go deeper you need to do a little bit less. Two lifetimes are not enough to realise how simple you can be.’

Lee touches upon one of the defining characteristics of Cloud Gate’s dancers: their extreme mindfulness onstage, so unlike the more self-conscious style and externalising habits of Western artists. This is how Lin described his company’s qualities in a post-show talk at Sadler’s Wells: ‘They don’t perform for the audience. They don’t even look at the audience. Most of them are doing meditation. It’s an internal conversation that keeps going on among themselves. If they are doing duets they don’t look at each other either, but there is still a sense of being in a space together. It’s like water.’

Lee confirms his words. ‘Sometimes when you finish a solo you don’t sense the audience at all. Something pulls you out of yourself. You’re not aware how you should be looking; if the pulling thing works you always look right. You realise some part of your life through your performance. You become softer, more comfortable as a person. This is very precious.’ If you let your body relax enough, she adds, and connect with the energy in the air, then dancing can become ‘a harmonious vibration.’ She mentions a teacher at Cloud Gate who once told her, ‘”You work too hard. You think too much. Inside of you it’s not quiet enough.” Never would a Western teacher tell me that. I would be told to work harder. In the next class this teacher told me to try not to think. “Dancers have too much discipline. Throw away your discipline to be free.”’

Growing Pains

During the post-show talk Lin spoke about choreographing Moon Water to selections from six of Bach’s suites for solo cello. ‘That was the first challenge. The dancers got so scared, because Bach is a performance by itself. Don’t mess with it. I tried other music, but then I went back to him.’ His reason? ‘Bach allows the dancers to breathe up from the ground.’ Nevertheless, a man in the audience questioned Lin’s choice of soundtrack: ‘Why did you use a whiny cello — was pop music too much of a challenge?’ Lin handled the potentially offensive query with admirable, self-deprecating aplomb. ‘The biggest regret of my life is that I never rock’n’rolled. I knew about The Beatles and Bob Dylan because I grew up in the ‘60s, but probably after that I just stopped growing.’ His reply was met with warm laughter.

Perhaps Lin owes his affinity for higher forms of art to his parents. He speaks of them with affection and respect. Both, he says, were educated in Japan; his father graduated from Tokyo Imperial University in law, and his mother from a home economics college. ‘For a young lady to graduate from college in those days was a big deal,’ Lin says, ‘especially from Taiwan, a colony. They both spoke the highest class Japanese. Coming back from Tokyo, they brought not only the influence of Japanese culture but European culture as well. One of the first pictures I saw in our house was Goethe – that guy, holding a pen. Another was Beethoven. My mother would play LPs every day. When I grew up I recognised the music — “Oh my God, that’s Tosca!” or “That’s the 7th Symphony!”’

Moon Water

Lin’s name means “embrace the people,” while similarly his siblings’ names mean things like “respect the people” and “shepherd the people.” Asked why his parents chose such weighty monikers Lin says, ‘For political reasons. Also, all these names are quotations from the classics. My father had five younger brothers and five young sisters. They all went to the best universities. My parents didn’t ask me to do anything but to enroll to the best university. But I failed.’ Why does he say this? ‘Because I never prepared for the tests.’ It turns out that instead of studying Lin was writing, a calling that began in earnest when he was about fourteen. ‘My parents always said, “You can do whatever you like after you get into the college.” They didn’t say no when I was dancing as a little kid; my mother even made slippers for me. They were open-minded, but they were worried about my future. When I was about to start the company my father said, “Dancers are the greatest among the artists because their bodies are their instruments. But bear that in your mind that could have a beggar’s career.” That was his blessing to me. I appreciated that, and so I saw to it that neither I nor the dancers became beggars.’

Lin accepts that he wasn’t such a failure after all. ‘In Taiwan they like to write about how rebellious I was, and how displeased my parents were. They were worried, but they knew what I was doing. And later they were very proud of me.’

‘There are dancers who are so good with their bodies,’ Lin continues, ‘that they make things faster. You have to slow them down.'

It’s hard to resist enquiring about Lin’s reasons for shutting Cloud Gate down twenty years ago. In 1983, when the company was ten years old, he was invited to found a dance department at the National Taipei University of Art. Eventually, he says, ‘I was like a candle burning at both ends. I became so tired. And I resented the society for its commercialism. That was the first time that Taiwan was affluent.’ At the time Cloud Gate was composed of twenty dancers, plus administrative staff. Despite his exhaustion, Lin wasn’t about to leave them high and dry. ‘The closing of the company was a two-year project. We situated every senior dancer, and invited chairpersons from US schools to come to auditions by the younger kids who then ended up there. And the company administrators went on to do their MBAs. Everything was well planned.’

So why did Lin reform Cloud Gate after nearly a three-year hiatus? Chalk it up to the influence of taxi drivers. ‘Nowadays 90% of the drivers will chat with me. They know who I am. This one guy asked me why I disbanded the company. I told him about all the difficulties I’d had. He was very sympathetic, but he said to me, “But Mr Lin, every job is difficult.” At the end of the trip he refused to take my fare. That happens often. Of course I gave him the money; I know that trying to make a couple of bucks in traffic like Taipei is not easy. Then, when I got out of the car, he wound down the window and said, “Strive on, Mr Lin!”’

Lin has tears in the corner of his eyes as he tells this tale. ‘I just felt so ashamed. During the next month at least ten drivers were preaching to me. I mean, I felt really terrible. Because the reason I started the company is not for my creative career. I was a kid of the 1960s. I wanted to change things, and I happened to bump into dancers — that’s why we had a company. It’s only after that, when we had sold-out houses in our first season, that I realised I had to learn how to choreograph!’ He laughs. ‘So, yes, I start the company again because of cab drivers.’

Legends and Legacies

‘He bears a deep responsibility towards his nation,’ Lee says of Lin. ‘It started 35 years ago with Cloud Gate’s slogan: “A company which can serve the society.” It’s the reason I’ve worked for him for such a long time. He’s a guy who doesn’t care about himself. You feel like you want to take care of him, but he doesn’t want that. We’ve gone through so many difficult times. You see him crying, depressed, so disappointed. He works hard because he wants so much for others. When he was younger he made his voice loud because he wanted to be heard. Now that he is older he thinks the only way to make society peaceful is to calm people, not to shout loudly. It’s still the same concern, only in a different way.’

‘My work is a reaction to the crazy society of Taiwan,’ says Lin. ‘I don’t want it to imitate that craziness.’ In truth, Cloud Gate’s productions function like a balm for troubled modern souls everywhere. Providing people with a source of stress-relieving beauty seems to be an inherent part of the company’s mission. ‘In the early days we went out into the villages and danced on small, rough stages,’ Lin recalls. ‘Nowadays we’re touring so much, but we still have free, outdoor performances every year in four cities. It’s a big deal. They attract 60 thousand people per show. 30 thousand, even when it rains. It’s a beautiful scene with all the yellow raincoats spread out. They will sit in the water for two hours. Sometimes we have to stop and say, “Go home! We do it tomorrow instead.” They say, “No!” So when the storm comes up we stop the show, mop the floor and then we continue.

Under Lin’s vigilant guidance Cloud Gate has developed in three directions: as one main company that has garnered plaudits internationally; a junior company that mainly performs in schools and local communities; and a school the ethos of which has reached thousands of Taiwanese of all ages. Lee says that Lin’s ultimate goal is to establish 200 dance schools throughout the country. This, she believes, is more important than being able to train more Cloud Gate dancers. Lin agrees. ‘In the schools we try to teach people to be friends with their bodies, and to respect others’ bodies. I think that’s going to be the legacy of Cloud Gate, so I can do something that is lasting.’

This generosity of spirit has helped turn the company, and Lin himself, into a national treasure. It’s a reason, too, for the intense media attention and strong public support just a few months ago when a nocturnal fire on the Chinese New Year devastated the company headquarters in Taipei. Costumes, sets and archives but, thankfully, no lives were lost. ‘The second day after the fire, the first day after the New Year, rehearsals went on as scheduled,’ Lin reports. ‘Yes, the costumes burnt, so we started making new ones. Everything moved fast, as if nothing happened. Now I think I took all that trauma in my body. It might be the material for a new work. I should say that in three years I will choreograph a piece called Firebird.’ He is joking, but humour is doubtless the flipside of untold distress. And yet this lamentable incendiary incident has a phoenix-like positive side: an increased percentage of government money has been pledged to Cloud Gate, coinciding with the huge amount of donations sent in by ordinary citizens. Furthermore, these unexpected funds can be applied to the construction of a complex of buildings that will enable Cloud Gate to continue to implement its programme of artistic and educational activities with a greater degree of resources and security.

‘Dance is life itself,’ Lin has said. Based upon his history with Cloud Gate, you believe him.

It’s a history that keeps evolving. ‘In recent years we revived some gigantic, full-length works that are adaptations from classical literature,’ Lin says, ‘with elaborate sets and things like that. We revived them and closed them down, one after another.’ Why? ‘Because the dancers are so wonderful, and I’m getting old, and we’d like to climb a few more mountains together. So we’re not going to let those things drag us back.’

Moon Water was a significant step in the company’s aesthetic development. After unveiling this masterpiece in 1998, Lin says, ‘we no longer needed to serve a story or a message. We were free of the past. It’s been a long process of rediscovery. Now I just concentrate on the bodies, and the dancers just do whatever they can. That’s what happens onstage. We make something out of nothing. Basically I’m having a long love affair with my dancers and the whole company. That’s my world. It’s their fire that keeps me going. And my creations are how I feed them, and how we challenge each other. And how they feed me back. After 35 years we take pride in the sense that we didn’t betray the commitment we had when we started, which is to serve the people.’