In Conversation with Cloud Gate Theatre: Deep Breathing

By Donald Hutera

In its early days the company’s work drew upon a blend of Chinese opera, folklore, literature (Lin himself is a published writer) and contemporary Western styles. Then, after the lifting of martial law in 1987, Lin created productions based on an examination of Taiwan’s sometimes painful historical and political legacy. Regardless of the subject matter, his dances have always carried a strong visual stamp. ‘Nowadays I don’t work on the visual surface,’ he claims, ‘or from literature or politics. I work on Chi, the energy. To me a performance is an exchange of breathing across the footlights. That’s what draws the people in.’

More than a decade ago Lin’s beloved company embarked upon what he calls ‘a gradual yet drastic change of direction. Cloud Gate used to do modern dance, ballet and Beijing Opera movement. But I wanted to go back to the source.’ For him that meant traditional Asian physical disciplines including meditation, martial arts and Tai Chi Tao Yin, an ancient form of Chi Kung. ‘East and West are truly different,’ Lin elaborates. ‘Here’s a Gothic church, and there is the Great Wall. Movement in the East all starts with a low, squatting position. It’s very grounded. From the soles of the feet you draw the energy up to the point between your sexual organ and you’re a**hole. That’s how the dancers do the things they do.’

Initially the company members balked at this rigorous new training regime. ‘They hated it! They just did it because they had to. But you have to understand that some dancers had wanted to be a Swan Queen since they were kiddies.’ Despite an initial reluctance, says Lin, they’ve adapted beautifully. The results — including Cloud Gate’s rice-laden performance Songs of the Wanderers, from 1994, and the equally exceptional abstract dance Moon Water in 1998 that is touring the UK this spring — have been highly gratifying.

‘When their bodies were seasoned in strength and ability,’ says Lin, ‘I realised that I could bring in the calligraphy.’ This is a reference to the recent Cursive trilogy of full-length dance works, each based upon the strong yet subtle range of energies associated with Chinese brushwork. ‘We have never tried to represent, demonstrate or explore the literature of calligraphy,’ he explains, adding, ‘Calligraphy, like movement, is an exercise of breathing. For us it’s a springboard to move, and an excuse to dance.’

Not that Cloud Gate needs an excuse to dance. It’s not too far off the mark to state that dance as executed by this company is astonishingly controlled while, at the same time, it seems to spring serenely from an utterly natural source. Lin tries to explain this dual effect as it occurs in Moon Water: ‘Each single breath is choreographed. There is not even a piece of hair that is improvised.’ And yet, he says,  ‘Most of our body consists of water, so we should flow like liquid.’ Significant, too, is the underlying emphasis on spirals in his choreography: ‘The earth spirals around the sun. Everything spirals. That’s the most organic movement in the universe.’  This blend of rigorous exactitude and calm, unforced circular motion produces a beautiful tension that is a central part of Cloud Gate’s onstage signature.

See also:
Tour(s): Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan 2008