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Saturday, October 8, 2011

Lin Hwai-min and Cloud Gate Dance Theatre

By Robert Wood

Lin Hwai-min comes to BAM from October 12—15 with Water Stains on the Wall, a choreographic exploration of calligraphy.

Photo: Lin Hwai-min, by Chen-hsiang
Lin Hwai-min wears the East well. His choreography—a distillation of movement from the martial arts, ancient practices like Qigong and meditation, calligraphy, and other eastern traditions—combines elements so lyrically and seamlessly that it often seems as natural to the dancers as breathing itself. That would be the easy interpretation, anyway: Hwai-min, “Taiwanese to his core,” has translated that authenticity into works which speak to the essence of the island itself. It’s a lovely idea. But the truth is much more interesting, if far-travelled.

Lin Hwai-min—though born in Taiwan—actually came to Taiwanese culture by way of the West.

“In those years,” he recounts, speaking of the 60s, “the West meant the best. Tours in Taiwan, going to the US and eventually getting a green card was the goal for many young people. Reading Time magazine was a must for snobbish college students. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez were our idols.”

The same went for dance. There was never a Fisher-Price tape recorder playing Peking Opera tunes by his childhood bedside, but there was the classic British ballet film The Red Shoes— which, after an initial viewing, Hwai-min claims to have watched 11 straight times.

Salinger, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald were also on the bill. (Hwai-min was a bestselling writer by 23). But as he recalls, the charm of the West—as least as represented in popular culture—had a shelf life. Disillusionment with the actual West as compared to the imaginary one led Hwai-min to begin reconsidering his preconceptions about the US and, eventually, about Taiwan as well. It was only then that he began looking eastward.

Way eastward. Post-Beatles and Time magazine, and after a whirlwind rediscovery tour around Taiwan, Hwai-min formed a dance troupe—Cloud Gate Dance Theatre—and named it after the oldest known dance in Chinese history. He stowed away the techniques he’d learned at Martha Graham’s studio, favoring movement directly linked to the Taiwanese experience. He had his dancers running through riverbeds, pushing and carrying rocks, in solidarity with the grueling labor of Taiwan’s original immigrant farmers—all to dispense with the cultural imaginary and reconnect his choreography to the bodily real.

38 years later, you can still feel the riverbed in Hwai-min's movement. The surface flows, but a calm, centered core beneath that surface—the wellspring of the meditator—always remains. It's only fitting that his latest work is about calligraphy, another practice so reliant upon the centered body to achieve its elegant, flowing effects.

Taiwan becomes Taiwan only from a distance. The river rivers with ease only over its secret stone. Take a look. And come see the show.

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