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Zen-like Cloud Gate

Oct. 29, 2003
By Mary Ellen Hunt

In a time when modern dance, like the modern world, is moving ever faster, one would hardly expect to be dazzled by a Chinese movement form that takes a ritual pace. But like watching the ocean, seeing a performance of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan proves that slow can be both hypnotic and engrossing.

Dance in China has a recorded history that dates back 5,000 years, although contemporary dance has been slower to take hold in both China and Taiwan. Indisputably, however, the pre-eminent modern dance troupe in Asia is Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, which makes its first Bay Area appearance since 1985 at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall this week.

Interviewed on a recent Sunday morning, from a hotel patio overlooking the Redwood Shores Lagoon, the company's trim 56-year-old artistic director, Lin Hwai-Min, is surprisingly relaxed considering the troupe's grueling touring schedule. But he becomes animated when speaking of his work, occasionally jumping up to demonstrate certain movements. Cloud Gate spends five months of each year on the road -- on this tour alone it is performing in Australia, South America and throughout the United States -- and brings along four large-scale productions. The troupe will perform one of the company's most lyrical and acclaimed works, "Moon Water," in Berkeley.

Named for the first known dance in China, the 30-year-old Cloud Gate presents highly theatrical dance productions that have won Lin critical raves throughout Europe and the United States. Nowhere, though, is the company more beloved than at home, where outdoor performances regularly attract from 30,000 to 60,000 fans.

"You feel you're part of them and that they accept you. It's a wonderful relationship and dialogue, the company and the society," Lin says. "But I feel the most wonderful thing about the company is that the same work is appreciated in the villages of Taiwan, or in London, Paris and New York."

Despite the enormous popularity of the company, running Cloud Gate has never been easy; and like most American artistic directors, Lin constantly worries about money. In 1988, he closed down the troupe for three years for financial reasons, spending that time traveling throughout India, Indonesia and China. But instantly upon returning to Taiwan, he found that the company had been sorely missed.

"A cab driver asked me why I closed up shop. So I told him how difficult it is to run a dance company and he was very sympathetic," Lin recounts. Then he takes a sterner tone: "But he said, 'Mr. Lin, every profession has its hard spots. Driving a cab in the traffic of the city is not easy!' I was getting preachings from the cab driver!"

As Lin tells it, he got out of the cab and the driver rolled down the window and shouted after him, "Strive on, Mr. Lin!"

"I thought, my God, if this is so important to people, even to the cab drivers, well, I think I'd better pick up and get my act together. And so I came back."

Born and raised in a country that endured hundreds of years of occupation and was under martial law until 1987, Lin describes himself as a child of the '60s -- socially conscious, out to change the world, "young and hot-blooded." His love of dance began at the age of 5, after seeing the film "The Red Shoes" nearly a dozen times, but his initial fame would come from writing; Lin is one of Taiwan's best-known authors.

By age 14, he had published his first story, and used the money to pay for ballet lessons. A best-selling writer by 23, he entered the University of Iowa to study writing, although he continued to study dance as a minor subject. His love of movement led him to study briefly with modern dance legends Merce Cunningham and, later, Martha Graham in New York.

"It was hard," he laughs. "I was so young, and I was just a stupid kid, nervous in the studio because he couldn't do any of the 'curves' right."

Nevertheless, his productions bear the clear stamp of Graham's influence, not necessarily in movement style, but rather in scale and focus. Like the venerable mother of modern dance, Lin uses the influences of his cultural heritage to explore universal themes, searching out stories from a wide variety of sources to create indelible images.

Serendipitous everyday moments often show up in distilled but unforgettable form in Lin's work: Children playing in a pile of sand in New York's Lower East Side appear in his 1994 "Songs of the Wanderers." And as with many artists of his generation, philosophy, politics and social commitment also play an enormous part. His 1997 epic "Portrait of Families," uses everyday movement and personal stories to explore patriotism and the tumultuous history of Taiwan.

Lin also often prepares his dancers in unorthodox ways, using techniques that mix ballet and modern with traditional Chinese body arts such as tai chi and meditation.

Perhaps no other work of Lin's shows this melding of philosophy, training and art more elegantly than "Moon Water," which is set to nine solo cello works by J.S. Bach. It is a ballet that deftly demonstrates the controlled grace and breathing of his tai chi-trained dancers, although Lin is quick to point out that they do not perform tai chi, per se.

The work's slow, deliberate manner of unfolding requires patience, particularly for Western audiences used to a more whiz-bang approach. But after a few minutes of adjusting to the pace of Lin's absorbing world, viewers often find themselves lured by the Zen-like "present-ness" that the work demands.

"Thirty years ago, I couldn't imagine that I would do a work like 'Moon Water,'" Lin says. "I would have laughed at it, because it's not hot-blooded. It's a different energy and different frame of sense of time. There is intense silence and concentration, and eventually the audience breathes along with it. Then they find the 70 minutes so short."

Lin stops suddenly in the middle of the conversation and points across the water.

"Look! Look!" he says, as a flock of Canada geese flies low and gracefully over the lagoon. "They do their parade. Every morning, they've been doing this ballet for me."

One has the distinct impression that someday, those geese will show up in one of Lin's dances.


• WHO: Cloud Gate Dance Theatre

• WHAT: "Moon Water"

• WHERE: Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft at Telegraph, on the UC Berkeley campus

• WHEN: Friday and Saturday

• HOW MUCH: $26-$46

• CALL: 510-642-9988,

This article first appeared in the Contra Costa Times.


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