East Meets West in Vivid Juxtaposition
Taiwan's Cloud Gate Dance Theatre mixes Chinese pageantry with reflections on modernity
NEW YORK — When Taiwan's Cloud Gate Dance Theatre gave an outdoor performance in Taipei two months ago, more than 80,000 people came to watch. Think about that. Eighty thousand people watching dance. Here in the United States, such crowds convene for little else but Pavarotti or the pope.
But Cloud Gate strikes a deep chord in Taiwan with its blend of Chinese pageantry and Western expression. The company is considered the catalyst for an artistic awakening in Taiwan - if not in the larger Chinese community.
American audiences can see Cloud Gate perform this month for the first time since 1985. Starting tomorrow, the 24-member company appears at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Opera House. The program features "Nine Songs," an epic of love and loss, death and rebirth.
Cloud Gate owes both its popularity and its lyricism to Lin Hwai-Min, a writer-turned-choreographer who founded the company in 1973.
"I do not tell stories," Mr. Lin said in a recent interview. "I try to create images that say something about our nature. You could call it a form of cultural expression."
Until the Nationalist Party lifted martial law in 1987, dance was perhaps the freest means of expression in Taiwan. No one made use of it as well as Lin, says Ming Cho Lee, a Shanghai native known as the dean of American stage design.
"Traditional Chinese theater has wonderful technique but a shortage of ideas," says Mr. Lee, who designed the set for "Nine Songs." "Lin uses many of these same techniques but conveys meaning powerfully."
Lin's work explores tensions between East and West, old and new, stasis and change. Where others see conflict, he sees the stuff of art. And life.
"Struggling is beautiful," he once told a filmmaker who was shooting a documentary about Cloud Gate. "That's how you know you're alive."
"Legacy," which the troupe performed on its last US tour, raised questions about cultural identity - a difficult topic for an island that has been colonized by nearly half a dozen countries in recent centuries.
In creating such works, Lin draws on a set of eclectic skills. As a teenager he studied traditional Chinese movement and ballet. After completing a master's degree at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop, he studied with the seminal figures of modern dance, Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham.
With financial support from Graham, Lin founded Cloud Gate upon his return to Taiwan in 1973. It has often been called the first modern dance company in China, though such words as "modern," "dance," and "Chinese" only loosely describe the company's work.
Today Lin's influence is felt not only through Cloud Gate but also at Taiwan's National Institute of the Arts, where he founded a school of dance in 1983.
"Hwai-Min is at the top of his creative power right now," Lee says. "His work is not simple. It's full of ambiguity. It raises issues that are possible to discuss in Taiwan and Hong Kong, but certainly not on the mainland."
"Nine Songs" is a case in point. Drawn from a cycle of poems, it chronicles 2,400 years of discord between gods and mortals, oppressors and victims. Critic Jochen Schmidt described the 1993 premiere as a work "that towers above all other new dance performances of the season either in Asia, America, or Europe."
Like Lin's earlier work, it mixes classical ballet and modern dance with the acrobatics found in Chinese opera.
Yards upon yards of billowing silk call to mind the Beijing Opera. Wicker masks resemble cave paintings in Outer Mongolia. And for the score, Lin went into the mountains of Taiwan to record aboriginal villagers singing to their gods.
The piece de resistance is the set by Lee: Live lotus plants float in a pool of water between the audience and the performers. They serve as icons of beauty, purity, and mortality. Like Chu Yuan, who wrote the original poems while in exile 24 centuries ago, Lin shows a shaman performing sacred rites for unresponsive gods. To underscore this sense of loss and abandonment, he conjures historical images of injustice.
"Nine Songs" alludes to a series of massacres by Japanese soldiers who occupied Formosa in 1895; Chinese Nationalists who came from the mainland in 1947; and Chinese Communists who drove students out of Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Yet Lin insists it is not a political work. "I draw some images from Tiananmen," he says. "But this dance is about something bigger. It's about all the wars and all the massacres." But just as the seasons run in cycles, "Nine Songs" closes with portents of hope and renewal.
His message has broad appeal. Wherever Cloud Gate performs - in Vienna as well as Taipei - audiences linger by the lotus pond long after the final curtain call.
"People say it feels like a church or a temple," Lin says. "Maybe they're right, because in the end 'Nine Songs' is a prayer."
*Cloud Gate performs Oct. 18, 20, and 21 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, and Oct. 27-29 at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles.