Cloud Gate Dance Theatre: Songs of the Wanderers by Lin Hwai-min
Wang Wei-ming in Songs of the Wanderers
(photograph: Yu Hui-hung, click on the image to enlarge)
Songs of the Wanderers by Lin Hwai-min. Lighting by Chang Tsan-tao, set design by Austin Wang, costume design by Taurus Wah, prop design by Szu Chien-hua and Yang Cheng-yun. Performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. State Theatre, The Arts Centre, Melbourne, July 26. Season ends July 29. Also Moscow, June 7-9, 2007.
When Cloud Gate first performed in Melbourne, John Cain was Premier, Victoria still had a State Bank and Melbourne’s Arts Festival was the Jake-the-peg third-leg of the Spoleto Festival dei due Mondi. Gian-Carlo Menotti presided.
The dance company -- in its early teens -- was then called Cloudgate Taipei Contemporary Dance Theatre and had 35 dancers variously trained in ballet, Chinese opera, Graham, Limon and Cunningham styles.
Founder, artistic director and choreographer (not to mention lecturer, best-selling novelist and Western opera director) Lin Hwai-min studied Chinese Opera movement in his native Taiwan and modern dance at the Martha Graham School in New York.
Mr Lin’s company, now, is a third smaller than it was in 1987, but it is every bit as dazzling and dramatic. More significantly, his hybrid of eastern and western styles has grown from sapling to maturity. It’s as solid and resilient as the Bodhi tree.
In Cursive II, Lin revealed his fascination for the glide of brush and ink on rice paper. In this earlier work, which dates from 1994 and was seen in Adelaide in March 1998, rice itself is the focus. Songs of the Wanderers uses literally tonnes of the stuff.
Wang Rong-yu in Songs of the Wanderers
(photograph: Hsieh An)
It falls like rain, it thumps to the ground like thunder, it sprays and sparks like fireworks. We hear its crunch and hiss. We note, wryly, that it is simultaneously social and solitary... rather like the human animal. All those unique-but-indistinguishable souls. Multitudes.
Watching Songs again, I realised it is about dying. Not death or rebirth, but the anguish and grieving associated with dying. The struggle with mortality. Parting. The relentlessness of death.
Yet Songs of the Wanderers is as glowingly beautiful as one of Turner’s late oil paintings.
Watching it, I remembered Richard Schechner’s silly pseudo-scientific euphemism for boredom. ‘Selective inattention’ he called it. For those shows you could tune in and out of.
Songs is meditative. Evocative. Time warping. But boring it is not. It prompts self-examination. It’s slow-moving. It sometimes demands willful concentration; but then, like all dance, there’s no second chance. It can’t be fixed. It can hardly be described.
Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan
(photograph: Lee Ming-hsun)
And this particular piece aspires to the spirituality of a whirling dervish performance. At the front of the stage, to the left, a man stands in a relentless sunshower of rice, his hands pressed together in front of him, in prayer. He stands motionless for the duration of the performance. Some 70 minutes. He’s buried to his ankles when the show begins. The mound of rice is up to his knees by the end of the performance. He’s like something out of Beckett. Happy Days.
Behind and around him, a low ridge of rice snakes like a border between countries. Slowly, six men enter from the rear carrying long forked sticks which have a single leaf-like bell dangling from the tip. These men journey in solitude. It’s a diaspora. A dispersal. One by one they fall with a whoosh, blasting rice before them.
In the opposite corner to the one who prays, a knot of eight women forms. Freezes. ‘Friezes’. Then jerks into life.
Cho Chang-ning’s solo is gorgeous, with rippling, furling arms.
In the next section, On The Road I, we see each staff as a divining rod, a weapon... then a staff again. A sweeper ploughs a path with astonishing athleticism and control.
Rite of Tree is the one weak section of the work. Men whack themselves with small branches. The flagellation is well executed, but horribly overacted.
The best (and best sustained) parts of Songs pair-off the men and women of the company. First with the men seated -- their straight sticks slotted into forked sticks to make solid apexes above them -- and the women climbing them. And, later, when a few of the women are shouldered by the men, holding jagged arabesques and clasping the top part of the sticks as they are carried away.
The choreography is full of stretches, splayed fingers and toes, kinked limbs, slow lunges, extensions, waves and twists. Parts are more acrobatic, even breakneck, but even breathing and careful discipline rule. And that, of course, makes the rare explosions of light and rice tossing all the more dramatic. Our senses are heightened by the silence and recorded Georgian chants. (Fans of Kate Bush will recognise one of the folk songs, it was used on her 1985 song ‘Hello Earth’.)
Lee Ching-chun in Songs of the Wanderers
(photograph: Lee Ming-hsun)
This is dance aspiring to the state of religion. It’s capped off with a brief, dizzying whirl -- one palm up, one palm down -- like the Sufi order of dervishes. Instead of religion served as performance, a la the whirling dervishes, this is performance served as ritual. Beyond confronting us with the brevity of our time on earth, it has no overarching agenda.
And, indeed, while it is deeply spiritual, it is -- inevitably -- very sensual. It’s coolly abstract yet bare-limbed and muscular. Its other great paradox is that it is both ascetic and generous.
I’m glad to have had the opportunity of seeing it again.
Later this year, Sylvie Guillem will perform a new solo piece choreographed by Lin Hwai-min. The still-untitled work will be staged at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, from September 19.
Cursive II and Wild Cursive are at Shinjuku Cultural Center, Tokyo, from September 21-24. Wild Cursive will be performed at Columbia College (Chicago) and UC Berkeley in October.
In 2007, Cursive can be seen at the Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, February 13 & 14, and Wild Cursive will play in Perth (His Majesty’s Theatre, February 19-21) and Sydney (Opera House, May 22 & 23).