In Conversation with Cloud Gate Theatre: Growing Pains

By Donald Hutera

During the post-show talk Lin spoke about choreographing Moon Water to selections from six of Bach’s suites for solo cello. ‘That was the first challenge. The dancers got so scared, because Bach is a performance by itself. Don’t mess with it. I tried other music, but then I went back to him.’ His reason? ‘Bach allows the dancers to breathe up from the ground.’ Nevertheless, a man in the audience questioned Lin’s choice of soundtrack: ‘Why did you use a whiny cello — was pop music too much of a challenge?’ Lin handled the potentially offensive query with admirable, self-deprecating aplomb. ‘The biggest regret of my life is that I never rock’n’rolled. I knew about The Beatles and Bob Dylan because I grew up in the ‘60s, but probably after that I just stopped growing.’ His reply was met with warm laughter.

Perhaps Lin owes his affinity for higher forms of art to his parents. He speaks of them with affection and respect. Both, he says, were educated in Japan; his father graduated from Tokyo Imperial University in law, and his mother from a home economics college. ‘For a young lady to graduate from college in those days was a big deal,’ Lin says, ‘especially from Taiwan, a colony. They both spoke the highest class Japanese. Coming back from Tokyo, they brought not only the influence of Japanese culture but European culture as well. One of the first pictures I saw in our house was Goethe – that guy, holding a pen. Another was Beethoven. My mother would play LPs every day. When I grew up I recognised the music — “Oh my God, that’s Tosca!” or “That’s the 7th Symphony!”’

Lin’s name means “embrace the people,” while similarly his siblings’ names mean things like “respect the people” and “shepherd the people.” Asked why his parents chose such weighty monikers Lin says, ‘For political reasons. Also, all these names are quotations from the classics. My father had five younger brothers and five young sisters. They all went to the best universities. My parents didn’t ask me to do anything but to enroll to the best university. But I failed.’ Why does he say this? ‘Because I never prepared for the tests.’ It turns out that instead of studying Lin was writing, a calling that began in earnest when he was about fourteen. ‘My parents always said, “You can do whatever you like after you get into the college.” They didn’t say no when I was dancing as a little kid; my mother even made slippers for me. They were open-minded, but they were worried about my future. When I was about to start the company my father said, “Dancers are the greatest among the artists because their bodies are their instruments. But bear that in your mind that could have a beggar’s career.” That was his blessing to me. I appreciated that, and so I saw to it that neither I nor the dancers became beggars.’

Lin accepts that he wasn’t such a failure after all. ‘In Taiwan they like to write about how rebellious I was, and how displeased my parents were. They were worried, but they knew what I was doing. And later they were very proud of me.’

It’s hard to resist enquiring about Lin’s reasons for shutting Cloud Gate down twenty years ago. In 1983, when the company was ten years old, he was invited to found a dance department at the National Taipei University of Art. Eventually, he says, ‘I was like a candle burning at both ends. I became so tired. And I resented the society for its commercialism. That was the first time that Taiwan was affluent.’ At the time Cloud Gate was composed of twenty dancers, plus administrative staff. Despite his exhaustion, Lin wasn’t about to leave them high and dry. ‘The closing of the company was a two-year project. We situated every senior dancer, and invited chairpersons from US schools to come to auditions by the younger kids who then ended up there. And the company administrators went on to do their MBAs. Everything was well planned.’

So why did Lin reform Cloud Gate after nearly a three-year hiatus? Chalk it up to the influence of taxi drivers. ‘Nowadays 90% of the drivers will chat with me. They know who I am. This one guy asked me why I disbanded the company. I told him about all the difficulties I’d had. He was very sympathetic, but he said to me, “But Mr Lin, every job is difficult.” At the end of the trip he refused to take my fare. That happens often. Of course I gave him the money; I know that trying to make a couple of bucks in traffic like Taipei is not easy. Then, when I got out of the car, he wound down the window and said, “Strive on, Mr Lin!”’

Lin has tears in the corner of his eyes as he tells this tale. ‘I just felt so ashamed. During the next month at least ten drivers were preaching to me. I mean, I felt really terrible. Because the reason I started the company is not for my creative career. I was a kid of the 1960s. I wanted to change things, and I happened to bump into dancers — that’s why we had a company. It’s only after that, when we had sold-out houses in our first season, that I realised I had to learn how to choreograph!’ He laughs. ‘So, yes, I start the company again because of cab drivers.’

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