Next month the Dance Center of Columbia College welcomes back Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan for a two-night engagement of its latest work "Formosa" at the Harris Theater.
According to Taiwanese legend, 16th-century Portuguese sailors exclaimed "Formosa!" ( "Beautiful!" ) as they came upon the lush island off the coast of China that would eventually be known as Taiwan. In this new work, Cloud Gate founder/artistic director Lin Hwai-min uses the island of his homeland, with all its natural splendor and turmoil, as inspiration and metaphor for our modern-day world.
Windy City Times: You began your artistic career as a fiction writer in Taiwan and received an MFA from the writer's workshop at the University of Iowa. Can you tell us more about your path from writer to choreographer?
Lin Hwai-min: The writer's sorkshop required students to take another course in other fields of art. Of course, I chose modern dance. So I started my training at 23. I never thought I was going to become a dancer because I knew I was too old. But being a creative, impulsive young man, I showed my teacher my first choreography and she thought it was very good. She advised me to quit school and go to New York to pursue a professional dance career. I did not. I came back to Taiwan.
I was crazy. But I was a kid growing up in the sixties who thought I could make a difference in a society, if not the world. And since there was no dance company, I founded one. And I thought I would hand it over to the dancers who were professionals while I was just a layman. But 45 years have passed…
WCT: Are there connections between writing and dancing?
Lin: Writing and dancing are two totally different things. Writing can be very precise and direct in expressing an idea while dancing, well one of the strongest characteristics of dance is its ambiguity; it is open to many different interpretations.
In the beginning my choreography tended to be narrative but I knew it was not the right way to do it. So it took me about 20 years to erase the "words" in my mind. And I started to create better workspure dance, that is. So, the two mediums are basically in conflict. But there are things in common. For instance both require a sense of structure.
Formosa has a lot of words. It features poetry all the way through and the type-faces of [Chinese] characters become the only material for the projection design. Somehow I came full circle. And by coincidence, the overseas premiere of Formosa happens to be in Iowa City. Life is a strange but interesting thing.
WCT: Your dancers are exquisitely trained. Can you tell us more about the cross training they undergo with meditation, martial arts, dance and calligraphy?
Lin: Since the founding of Cloud Gate in 1973 we thought we would create a style of our own rather than copycats of Western modern dance. So, in addition to ballet and modern dance, we had Beijing opera movements and later the emphasis shifted to meditation, martial arts and qi qong. [It is] less stylized but deals with the beauty of the body and is always grounded: low moving and in a low position. Each movement is initiated by breathing.
Cloud Gate dancers have a great sense of centeredness. We use the core of the body to move and the mind is very centered. Dancers meditate before a performance, also at the airport, in the plane, in the hotel. Therefore, when they are still, the energy grows. From stillness to sharp movement takes a second, an instant. They can shift like a martial artist. So, that's what we do. It's a very centered and quiet mind and body.
WCT: What are the biggest challenges when touring your work?
Lin: Well, we've has been touring around the world since the late 70's. Nowadays we tour about 150 days a year and this year we will perform in ten countries. What I'm afraid of is the physical condition of the dancers. I don't want them to be injured. In fact, on this tour, Chicago is the biggest challenge because of the low temperature and the freezing wind from Lake Michigan. We are from a tropical country! But we are prepared.
WCT: What are you most proud of as an artist?
Lin: I think I have a very fulfilled life as a dancer, choreographer and company director. When we started the company we never dreamed about Paris, New York, London or Chicago. You know, from growing up in the 60s, I told the dancers that the main goal of the company is to perform for the grassroots audiences and students on campuses. I feel so fortunate, despite our busy tour, that we are still able to do that. ... I am happy we are able to entertain and inspire the general people, the people who don't enter the opera houses. I feel so blessed that the society, the people on the island helped us come to this point. I think the best review I ever got was from a farmer lady. In the darkness of a nowhere village, a farm lady walked towards me, held my hands and said in a stage whisper, "thank you very much for your beautiful art."
Formosa will take place Friday-Saturday, March 2-3, at 7:30 p.m. at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph St; call 312-369-8330 or visit Colum.edu/dancecenterpresents .