In the ever-tumultuous political and socio-economic state of our world, it is essential now, more than ever, that we take the time to pause, reflect, and contemplate history, our selves, and the impact we can have. There is no better place to turn for this than Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. The Dance Center at Columbia College Chicago will present Cloud Gate at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance at the beginning of March. Founded in 1973 by Artistic Director Lin Hwai-min, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre has been recognized for its unique movement aesthetic and for Mr. Lin’s “distinct and mature Chinese choreographic language”. But what makes his dancers so unique? How do they achieve their distinct movement aesthetic, and how does that aesthetic inform Mr. Lin’s choreographic work? DancerMusic’s Kristi Licera had the chance to speak with Mr. Lin during Cloud Gate’s Mexico City performances to find out:
Kristi: I learned from your website that your dancers train in “meditation; Qi Gong, an ancient breathing exercise; internal martial arts; modern dance; ballet; and calligraphy.” How did you come to curate this collection of practices? What is the thread that connects it all together?
Let’s tackle meditation first. What form of meditation does Cloud Gate practice?
All of these are related [through breath]. Without meditation, without knowing the ability to breathe at all, you don’t invent other things.
Lin: As you know, there are many schools of meditation. To master meditation, you need long hours of practice, which we cannot afford. There are those long, energetic, profound meditations – if something goes wrong during one, it could be devastating. So, we take a very simple form of meditation – actually, it’s just a breathing exercise. The meditation is centered on the mind and warms the body from the inside out. Qi Gong is another form of meditation – an ancient form of a breathing exercise. We have a very old master who comes to teach it. Basically, we like the part that centers your mind.
You know, all these traditional forms require breath, and so does calligraphy. On the surface, calligraphy is a writer holding a brush. But what we really read from calligraphy are traces of breathing while the writer dances with the brush. It really is a breathing exercise. All of these are related [through breath]. Without meditation, without knowing the ability to breathe at all, you don’t invent other things.
In all the dance studios, including classical ballet, you would hear teachers screaming, “Breathe! Breathe!” That means that the dancers don’t breathe. But in Cloud Gate, each movement is initiated by breathing. So, all of these are together. I mean, you go further than those traditional movements – you are grounded. Classical ballet tries to defy gravity, but in our forms, we submit to the ground and draw the energy from the floor. That is why there is a great opposition [between the two aesthetics].
On the surface, calligraphy is a writer holding a brush. But what we really read from calligraphy are traces of breathing while the writer dances with the brush.
The internal breathing initiates movement, and as you see in calligraphy, the brush moves in a circular motion. It’s not like a pen, that goes in a straight line. The straight line is also another characteristic of classical ballet. There is forward attack in the movement.
But in Qi Gong, Tai Chi, and calligraphy, everything goes cursive, circular, spiraling. And this is not only the way your arms move circularly, but your torso as well. More importantly, you think circularly, and when you draw the energy from the ground, you channel it in a circular motion in your body. Breathing, low position, circular movement – that sums up the basics.
Take for example, a Gothic church. It’s a metaphor for classical ballet. For our part, think about The Great Wall. It crawls along the land – it’s a spine, in a way. Circular, too.
Movement, or sitting down without movement, all share the same philosophy.
On the surface, calligraphy is a writer holding a brush. But what we really read from calligraphy are traces of breathing while the writer dances with the brush. It really is a breathing exercise.
Kristi: As I was preparing for our interview, I looked back on one that you had with Zac Whittenburg in Time Out Chicago in 2010, where you mention standing on the shoulders of a king and queen in modern dance – Merce Cunningham and your buddy, Pina Bausch.
Lin: I miss Pina. She was always so kind to us, and always invited us to her festival. And we never had to make an appointment with her! Everyone always wanted to make an appointment with her secretary – just five minutes they would say! But I didn’t have to make an appointment with Pina. We would always end up on the smoking corner. Sometimes, when I was passing a hall where she was conducting a meeting with her colleagues and she saw me, she would lift up an eyebrow. I would nod to say yes, and she would stop everything and come smoke with me. We would chat (laughs heartily), and sometimes, we would get too gossipy. I miss her. She’s a great lady, a great artist, and a great human being.
Kristi: With your strong ties to Pina and time in the US, were you ever influenced by other choreographers like Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham or William Forsythe?
Lin: Actually, I don’t really think I got influenced. I took maybe thirty classes of Graham technique when I was in the states as a writer. I took dance class as a hobby. I enjoyed it. I took one month of class at the Cunningham studio. I never studied any form of ballet innovated by Forsythe.
What we have been doing over the past forty-five years is try to search through the materials and disciplines around us in Taiwan. It’s why our style of movement is different.
Being in Taiwan, I only had so much. I was too old for the internet, and I don’t browse over YouTube much. So, what we have been doing over the past forty-five years is try to search through the materials and disciplines around us in Taiwan. It’s why our style of movement is different. Dance Europe claims that Cloud Gate “dances like no other company in the world”, and it’s because the training is different.
Kristi: There is something about the study of calligraphy that is reflected in your dancers’ movement. When I watch your dancers, there is something so delicate and refined about their toes and fingers. Calligraphy requires patience and is connected to breath, but is also a visual art that is very precise.
Lin: Yes. The teachers, the masters, always demand that the energy comes from the core of your body and must go beyond your limbs and fingertips. To do that, you must take root in the ground. That way you can see a kind of oppositional play of energy. You’re going down, then you “bounce back”, or are channeling out. That’s the way we move.
Nowadays, we receive training, but we throw out all the routines and allow the dancers to move organically on stage. I think FORMOSA shows that direction
In earlier days when we did works inspired by calligraphy, like Cursive, which was presented in Chicago, you get these kinds of stances. The stances may remind one of martial arts – low positions and all that. Nowadays, we receive training, but we throw out all the routines and allow the dancers to move organically on stage. I think FORMOSA shows that direction – that it looks like a modern dance company, but it’s not using the excuse of classical Chinese calligraphy or literature.
Let’s put it this way – we tend to refer to kung fu as a martial art, but it also has a second meaning. One is, as we know, the skill to fight – the skill to kill. However, kung fu originally means time – the time you spent (working).
In ballet class, you usually do tendú (counts a waltz tempo aloud), then you plié and change – not at Cloud Gate. Under the instruction of the masters, a class often starts with a 14-minute squatting position. It conditions your body. When you are standing still, you are not still – you are still going. Otherwise, you cannot really sustain 14 minutes of standing there. Your mind has to be open. You must focus without focusing. That makes a dancer alert. So, you will see our dancers moving fast, sharp, then stop into very soft movement. All of this ability came from the training.
Under the instruction of the masters, a class often starts with a 14-minute squatting position. It conditions your body. When you are standing still, you are not still – you are still going… You must focus without focusing.
Kristi: Is there anything specific that you had your dancers do to prepare for the creation of FORMOSA?
For this work, we kicked it off with weeks of walking – just walking. This was to make the dancers easy, more relaxed, and more organic, so that they can come with a new way, a new freedom to use the training.
Lin: We always start a work with improvisation. For this work, we kicked it off with weeks of walking – just walking. This was to make the dancers easy, more relaxed, and more organic, so that they can come with a new way, a new freedom to use the training. We don’t use routines or exercises or things that shadow classical training. We improvise, we encourage them to do things. I draw for them, I develop the materials, edit, and cut it up as every choreographer has done in their day.
Lin: I started as a writer. I didn’t have any professional dance background. I was creative and hot-blooded and young, and I was growing up in the sixties. I created a company without really knowing what a company was. I had to teach myself how to choreograph. Forty-five years has gone by, and I feel very blessed by the journey that we have taken together, not only with my dancers, but with the whole society.
Forty-five years has gone by, and I feel very blessed by the journey that we have taken together, not only with my dancers, but with the whole society.
I mentioned growing up in the sixties, when we believed that young people could and should make a difference in society. Since there was no professional dance company in Taiwan, we started one. We started with the goal of performing for the grassroots people in communities and students on campuses. We never thought that we would be in Chicago or Moscow. Now we spend more than 100 days – sometimes up to 150 – outside of the country, but we still perform for those grassroots people and students. For the past twenty-three years, we have staged outdoor performances in different cities and the average audience attendance for each show was 30,000 people. It explains why we had to give more to our society, and when our studio burned down in 2008, we received more than 4,000 donations for our new complex. One of the great donors is actually from Chicago – the Alphawood Foundation – and we are so happy to be back with FORMOSA.
The Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago will present Cloud Gate Dance Theater’s FORMOSA at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, March 2 & 3. Tickets are available at www.colum.edu/CloudGate.