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Dance

Lin Hwai-min, self-taught choreographer and visionary

Reimagining the Asian performing body.

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Published: 22 Mar 2019


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The Cloud Gate dancer is immediately distinguishable: A powerful, grounded strength radiates from the core of the body, shifting in a blink of an eye between meditative flow and explosive energy, weightless leaps and deep lunges. This is human physicality of a beauty that everyone should witness at least once in their lifetime.

45 years after founding Taiwan’s Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, Lin Hwai-min will step down from its helm as Artistic Director. The company celebrates his achievements with a retrospective gala performance of excerpts from nine of his iconic works.

Lin leaves behind a remarkable legacy. His name is internationally synonymous with Asian contemporary dance, but is also a household name from Taiwan’s cities to its rural villages. Above all, Lin proposed a new vision of the Asian performing body – a body with its own voice and language that was decidedly not a copy of “modernity” from Western sources, and a striking stage aesthetic that has been moving to viewers across place, time, and class.

Unlikely beginnings

It will seem unimaginable to many dancers today that such a renowned choreographer never trained in a full time conservatoire, and that his choreographic practice was self-taught. When he was a young man, Lin’s family initially discouraged his interest in dance. So he took a detour through literature, becoming a bestselling writer in his 20s and using his earnings to pay for dance classes.

He moved to Iowa for a masters in writing at the age of 23, but finished off his time in the USA studying at the Martha Graham school and Cunningham studio in New York. As a choreographer, he first founded his company – and then built his craft by doing. In a lecture at the ConversAsians conference at the Esplanade in 2010, Lin explained, “I really learnt about movements, about bodies, from working with dancers. I learnt choreography through the audience responses in theatre.”

“Something of our own”

Speaking in 2010, Lin framed his journey as a search for identity. Feeling homesick and displaced when he was in the USA, Lin realised to his horror that he knew little about his own culture. He became determined to rectify that. Lin returned to Taiwan in 1973 convinced that he must “create something of our own”.

For his company name he looked back to accounts of the earliest known dance ritual in Chinese civilisation. At first, Lin drew inspiration from classics of Chinese literature such as The White Serpent (Madam White Snake) and The Dream of the Red Chamber. He was also the first choreographer to portray Taiwanese history, from the arrival of the first migrants from the mainland, to the turbulent Taiwanese history under martial law. The character-driven choreography of his earlier works merged Western modern dance and Chinese opera movement vocabulary.

It was after the first performance of the ballet Swan Lake in Taipei in 1976 by the Australian Ballet, that Lin realised that he wanted to create an entirely new dance form suited to Asian bodies. He quipped at ConversAsians that he aimed to be “inspired by forms developed by the masters with shorter legs”.

He introduced qigong and taichi to his dancers’ training regimen, and later added meditation and Chinese martial arts. He worked with a strong belief that practice enters the body – and it was strikingly clear from Songs of the Wanderers (1994) onwards that the various disciplines had found their integration. Lin recounted how his dancers initially resisted this unconventional approach, but eventually grew to love the parallel disciplines.

Above all, it was calligraphy that cemented Cloud Gate’s signature movement style, and inspired what are now Lin’s most iconic works: the Cursive trilogy (2001, 2003, 2005). Lin explained that the practice of Chinese calligraphy is a form of meditation and a work of breathing that trains the sensitivity of dancers in their use of energy. As in martial arts, the breath and circular movement are central. His dancers expressed the changing energy of the brushstroke, while the audience was the paper.

Lin's <em>Cursive</em>, expressing the changing energy of the brushstroke, as part of <em>Huayi</em> 2006.

The problem of Chineseness

While Lin’s style has become a hallmark of “Chinese contemporary dance” and influenced many dancers of the Chinese diaspora, he has never claimed to represent an authentically “Chinese” culture or identity.

While delving into Chinese arts and movement traditions, Lin embraced other influences. His company still trains in ballet and modern dance techniques including Graham, and he often selects non-Chinese music composers from the Baroque to the contemporary.

At ConversAsians, Lin credited his major shift towards reflective qualities in his choreography not to Chinese philosophy, but to a trip to India that he claims changed his life, and “taught me to calm down and be sensitive to the flow of life”. His search for “something of our own” is perhaps best understood as his drive to express something authentic to himself and his individual artistic context.

Perhaps it was a stroke of fortune that he was born in Taiwan and claims his nationality proudly – a position that left him free to create without the pressures faced by his contemporaries in mainland China who faced first the Cultural Revolution, and then decades engaged in a state-sponsored project of reconstructing an authentic syllabus of Chinese classical and folk dances, with minimal reliance on “imported” elements.

Yet Lin’s continued revisiting of Taiwanese history and heritage is also never simplistically nationalistic or narrative, focusing instead on human emotion and suffering, and references to Taiwan’s indigenous culture and shamanistic odes to the land.

Or simply the introduction of three tonnes of rice on stage in Songs of the Wanderers—as Lin proudly proclaimed in ConversAsians, it is “Taiwanese rice”—with all the complex associations of rice scarcity during the island’s times of hardship.

Old wine, fine wine?

A criticism that has been levelled at Lin is that his work is simply boring – and that his style stagnated during and after the Cursive phase. A 2007 New York Times review labelled Wild Cursive “dry” and “a collage of clichés”, while The Independent in 1999 described Songs of the Wanderers as “a fairly basic premise and its vapid, repetitive elaboration”.

But such voices are in the minority among professional critics.

In a personal interview with Albert Tiong, a Singapore-based dancer who spent three years with Cloud Gate from 1996 to 1999, he points out that it isn’t so much a question of repetition as of Lin having a strong and distinctive style. Continuing to innovate over a long career is a challenge that every choreographer faces, but Lin does this well, relentlessly experimenting and mixing together new elements each time to create distinctive work.

<em>Moon Water</em>, as part of <em>Huayi</em>, 2003. An excerpt of this piece will be performed at Cloud Gate's 45th anniversary gala performance in 2019.

Dances for the people

A lesser-known aspect of Cloud Gate outside of Taiwan is Lin’s dedication to outreach. Upon founding the company, he was determined to bring art to the towns and villages of Taiwan, and make it accessible whether one was rich or poor. Annually, the company stages free open-air performances in major cities that Lin estimates are attended by 40-60,000 people, and has a policy of reaching out to disaster-stricken areas to bring comfort through art. It is the spirit of such initiatives that leads Tiong to point out that Lin not only influenced the dance world but also Taiwanese society at large, inspiring it with his determination, his spirit and his philosophy towards art.

Self-effacing public figure, stern patriarch

Lin’s legacy already extends beyond his company and the bodies of his dancers. Cloud Gate’s multi-disciplinary style of training for dance now guides training at leading conservatories in Taiwan, notably the Taiwan National University of the Arts where Lin founded the dance department in 1983.

Many of Lin’s former dancers in Taiwan and abroad have continued to spread this training philosophy and movement sensibility. In Singapore, several generations of dancers have inherited a sensitivity to Lin’s style through Tiong, who still counts his time at Cloud Gate as his formative artistic influence. Similarly across the border, Lin’s influence has been channeled into Malaysian contemporary dance through former Cloud Gate dancers including Anthony Meh Kim Chuan and Wong Jyh Shyong.

Contemporary dance in Taiwan is now a flourishing and varied scene with much that looks nothing like Cloud Gate’s work. But younger generations of dancers still maintain a deep respect for “Teacher Lin”, and company positions at Cloud Gate remain a coveted aspiration.

Since 2015, the new Cloud Gate Theatre complex in the outskirts of Tamsui has been made available as a resource to other dance and performing arts companies from Taiwan and abroad looking for rehearsal and performance space, while the Cloud Gate Art Makers Fund disburses grants to emerging artists.

These open-hearted initiatives and Lin’s self-effacing public persona stand in contrast to his persona as a teacher and company director, where he was known to be an extremely strict taskmaster.

In the studio, Lin is said to have been like a stern patriarch, who nevertheless had the growth and achievements of his dancers in mind. Looking back now at 45 remarkable years of work by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, it is clear that these successes were only made possible by an exceptionally determined mind and a visionary spirit, who pushed himself just as relentlessly as he pushed his company.


Contributed by:

Chan Sze-Wei

Chan Sze-Wei is a Singapore-based choreographer and film maker. Her work blends conceptual, interactive, improvisatory and cross-cultural approaches for theatres, public spaces, video installation and film. She is also a journalist with ArtsEquator, and an advocate for sustainable dance careers in Singapore and artistic networks in Southeast Asia.


Acknowledgement by:

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Albert Tiong, Elizabeth Chan and Tung I-Fen for contributions to this essay.


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