By Donald Hutera
Lee knows a thing or two about textured dancing a la Cloud Gate, most of which is achieved only after an exceptional amount of hard work and dedication. ‘This company is not about what you can do,’ she avows, ‘but about what you’re willing to do.’ It makes sense when she says that the quality most sought after in prospective dancers is ‘flexibility of mind.’
Lee was 17 years old when she first saw Cloud Gate nearly a quarter-century ago, at a time when Lin himself was still performing. In 1981 she attended a summer camp run by the company, officially joining it after a standard apprenticeship period of two years. Her loyalty to Cloud Gate and its creator are plain. ‘If Mr Lin had been born in Europe he probably would have achieved his success much earlier,’ she says.
The company’s international breakthrough didn’t happen until the 1990s, by which point Cloud Gate had persevered through two decades or so of almost perpetual near-bankruptcy and even a two and a half year period when Lin was compelled to disband the company. ‘It was difficult for us to survive,’ says Lee. ‘We were always on the verge of a crisis. I think that’s why the dancers work so hard. We know that we are different, so we work double-hard.’
Lee is articulate about the paradoxical and quintessentially Asian philosophy that so eloquently envelops Cloud Gate’s dancers. ‘They can be soft and strong. There’s a motion within their stillness, and stillness within their motion. Stillness is more difficult than action.’ The underlying idea, she says, is ‘to move as minimally and organically as possible. Every day we try to achieve a sense of attention from inside. To go deeper you need to do a little bit less. Two lifetimes are not enough to realise how simple you can be.’
Lee touches upon one of the defining characteristics of Cloud Gate’s dancers: their extreme mindfulness onstage, so unlike the more self-conscious style and externalising habits of Western artists. This is how Lin described his company’s qualities in a post-show talk at Sadler’s Wells: ‘They don’t perform for the audience. They don’t even look at the audience. Most of them are doing meditation. It’s an internal conversation that keeps going on among themselves. If they are doing duets they don’t look at each other either, but there is still a sense of being in a space together. It’s like water.’
Lee confirms his words. ‘Sometimes when you finish a solo you don’t sense the audience at all. Something pulls you out of yourself. You’re not aware how you should be looking; if the pulling thing works you always look right. You realise some part of your life through your performance. You become softer, more comfortable as a person. This is very precious.’ If you let your body relax enough, she adds, and connect with the energy in the air, then dancing can become ‘a harmonious vibration.’ She mentions a teacher at Cloud Gate who once told her, ‘”You work too hard. You think too much. Inside of you it’s not quiet enough.” Never would a Western teacher tell me that. I would be told to work harder. In the next class this teacher told me to try not to think. “Dancers have too much discipline. Throw away your discipline to be free.”’