A preview of Wind Shadow, Cloud Gate’s Barbican show
Lin Hwai-min absorbed influences from around the world in order to found a modern dance company and find a style that was authentically “made in Taiwan”.
Born in Taiwan in 1947, Lin Hwai-min got hooked on dance at the age of five when he saw The Red Shoes. As a teenager, he was inspired by the American dancer and choreographer José Limón. Discouraged from pursuing dance by his parents, he developed a talent for literature: he had his first novel published at 14, using the proceeds to pay for dance classes, and was a bestselling writer by the age of 23.
After attending a writing course in America, he studied briefly at the Graham and Cunningham studios in New York. On his return to Taiwan in 1973, determined to develop a Taiwanese form of expression in dance, he founded Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, the country’s first modern dance company.
His early pieces were fusions of modern dance with Chinese opera, acrobatics and folk dance. They dealt with mythological and historical Chinese and Taiwanese themes, sometimes explicitly engaging with contemporary Taiwanese society and politics. With Taiwan still under martial law, the pieces touched a nerve and were instant hits. But Lin struggled financially and closed the company in 1988. He then spent three years travelling through India, Indonesia, Europe and America.
In 1991 he returned with renewed vigour and began to move away from his narrative style towards more meditative, image-based work, which proved as popular on the international stage as in Taiwan. Cloud Gate Dance Theatre is now one of Taiwan’s most prominent cultural organisations, with a school and a youth company. In 2003, on its 30th anniversary, the street where the company is based was renamed Cloud Gate Lane and 21 August was designated “Cloud Gate Day”.
Watching Cloud Gate Dance Theatre
Cloud Gate dancers study t’ai chi, martial arts, meditation and calligraphy – and it shows. They move with the explosive force of martial arts and yet maintain the poise and flow of t’ai chi and the quiet intensity of meditation. As Lin says, “Instead of invading space, we now internalise our focus and discover a new world: our own bodies.”
Staging, design and lighting are as important as the dance. Lin’s visuals tend to be simple yet striking: ink seeping through rice paper in Cursive, a flooded floor in Moon Water. The works are sometimes epic in scale: three tonnes of rice fall on to the floor in Songs of the Wanderers.
Don’t expect a lot of drive in Lin’s works: the combination of stillness, scale and symbolism means that they are experiences to savour rather than stories to follow.
Regular collaborators include lighting designer Chang Tsan-tao and set designers Lin Keh-hua and Austin MC Wang. Lo Man-fei, one of Lin’s prized dancers, went on to become director of Cloud Gate 2, the youth, educational and outreach wing of the company. She died in 2006.
Lin relaunched Cloud Gate in 1991 after a conversation with a Taipei cab driver. Explaining to the taxi driver that running a dance company was too hard, he was told: “Every profession has its hard spots. Driving a cab in the traffic of the city is not easy!” He thought, “My God, if this is so important to people, even to the cab drivers, well, I think I’d better pick up and get my act together. And so I came back.”
In his own words
“We set out to create works of our own, not imitations of American or European modern dance. As to how, I didn’t know, and had to spend the next 30 years looking for an answer … Dance critics in Europe acclaim that Cloud Gate has created a new dance language. In fact, we just happily found ourselves.” – Address to the International Society for the Performing Arts in 2006
“Dance is an exchange, a dialogue of energy. A Cloud Gate performance becomes so intense because everyone breathes together. The audience is unconsciously seduced, invited, involved in what’s going on.” – Interview with Caroline Gluck, New York Times, 2005
In other words
“Lin Hwai-min is rightly known as one of dance’s natural linguists – his vocabulary switching between martial arts and ballet, modern dance and Beijing opera. But in his best work that eclecticism stays yoked to a Chinese aesthetic.” – Judith Mackrell, Guardian, 2004
“A show [Moonwater] that all aspiring set designers should see. It is a crash course in how to be stunning with the simplest of means.” – Nadine Meisner, Independent, 2002
“Lin’s dance-language feeds off his artists’ tremendous physical control: you watch a simple movement journey through the dancer’s body and see a fascinating play of muscle and pose.” – Clement Crisp, Financial Times, 2008
If your friends are getting impatient during the show, try a Chinese proverb: “If you are in a hurry, you will never get there.”
“This is all wrong: Cloud Gate is in Chicago and Cloud Gate Day was 15 May 2006!”
You’re thinking of the other Cloud Gate (aka “The Bean”), a sculpture by Anish Kapoor which also had a day named after it by the city authorities. Copycats.
Japan’s Sankai Juku have certain similarities with Cloud Gate: an emphasis on visual imagery rather than narrative drive, and a meditative, timeless quality. Akram Khan collaborated with Lin Hwai-min for his piece Sacred Monsters (2006); the following year Khan choreographed a piece for Cloud Gate, Lost Shadows.
Now watch this
Moon Water (1998), based on the ideal state of t’ai chi: “Energy flows as water while the spirit shines as the moon.”
Cursive II (2003), one of a trilogy of pieces exploring calligraphy.
Clip from a documentary film about Cloud Gate Dance Theatre.
Where to see them next
See the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre website for performance dates.