As a small boy in the early 1950s, Lin Hwai-min watched the classic ballet movie The Red Shoes 11 times. "I was very impressed with how high the dancers jumped and how they made those shoes do the monkey business," he recalls. But his parents, intellectuals from an old, distinguished southern Taiwanese family, frowned on their son going into the arts, let alone something as lowly as dance.
First practiced by courtesans, and then, during the Ming dynasty, absorbed into the Peking Opera, Lin says, "dance really didn't regain its own identity, both on the mainland and in Taiwan, until the late 40s, when performers reconstructed so-called classical dance moves from old paintings and blended them with Western ballet--which had become a craze in 30s Shanghai--as well as dances of the minority tribes."
Lin secretly took ballet lessons, paying for them with money he earned writing short stories about adolescent frustration. At 14 he started studying the Peking Opera movements and the dances of Taiwan's Tsao aborigines. His first exposure to modern dance came the following year when he saw Jose Limon dancing The Moor's Pavane in Taipei. "I will never forget the moment when Jose put up his arms and leaped," he says. "It was so breathtaking and new." After earning a degree in journalism, Lin spent a couple of years at the University of Iowa writers' workshop, where a required dance class plunged him into modern dance for good. "Though two anthologies of my stories had been published, I was not to write fiction again," he says. He went to New York City, where he briefly apprenticed with disciples of Martha Graham--"she was too frail to teach"--and Merce Cunningham. But he realized he was "too old to become a professional dancer and too young to be intimidated by the hardship of a choreographer's career."
The Taiwan Lin went back to in 1972 was in transition. Its economic boom and burgeoning arts scene had instilled a sense of national pride, but the ruling elite didn't tolerate "any artistic form that reflected reality or dealt with obstruction and ambiguity," he says. He got a job teaching creative writing at a university, but soon, itching to choreograph, he recruited 12 dancers--"first-generation radicals and rebels"--to form Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, and it became the first successful modern-dance company on the island. "We did simple, short things at first, merging traditional materials, Peking Opera stories, with some Western stuff," he says. "We decided that Chinese audiences should see choreography by Chinese set to music by Chinese and danced by Chinese." The debut performances sold out, and Cloud Gate has not failed to draw large audiences since.
Lin's imaginative, moody dances often commented on trends and social issues that concern the Taiwanese. Legacy, from '78, tells the epic story of pioneers from the mainland who endured tough times centuries ago to build a prosperous nation. It's now one of Cloud Gate's signature works. "It was a theatrical response to the U.S. breaking ties with Taiwan," he explains.
Throughout the 80s the troupe toured frequently, allowing Lin to assimilate varied influences into his choreography. But, he says, "I was also worn-out, having burnt the candle at both ends, so I disbanded the company in '88 and started traveling--to Bali, Java, China, and India." On the banks of the Ganges in northern India, Lin experienced a revelation. "I saw Hindus washing, bathing, and cremating the dead, all in close proximity," he remembers. "I realized there was a continuum between life and death, the possibility of reincarnation. Being from a Confucian society, I was too much into aiming and achieving."
Lin returned to Taiwan in 1991. Immediately a cabdriver recognized him and asked about Cloud Gate's future. "I explained that we'd led a hand-to-mouth existence, without much financial support from the government," Lin says. "The driver said it couldn't be as tough as dealing with Taipei traffic. I was touched and felt guilty." He resurrected the company, hiring a new generation of dancers "who are taller and younger," adding dances of renowned choreographers such as Paul Taylor to its repertoire, and installing a business-savvy staff--while retaining the troupe's strong social and political sensibilities. Nine Songs, a spectacular full-length work that premiered in '93, combines musical and dance elements from the lands Lin visited into a panorama of Taiwan's turbulent history.
In India, Lin had begun imagining a dance that would incorporate Buddhist principles. His latest major production, Songs of the Wanderers, which addresses the quest for spiritual enlightenment, is more introspective than Nine Songs. Lin's stay at a Buddhist holy site inspired the device of having rice poured continually over a monk figure standing still in a corner throughout the 90-minute performance. It's choreographed to Islam-imbued Georgian songs "of peaceful power" he first heard in Vienna and eventually obtained on an LP from a Russian bookstore in Brooklyn. In a way, he observes, the dance is "my own pilgrimage away from society to where the flowers blossom in the fields, my notion of what it's like to reach the end, to experience the final bliss."
Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan will perform at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress, today and Saturday at 8. Tickets are $20 to $45. Call 312-902-1500. --Ted Shen
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.