The world’s leading companies in dance, theater and music will converge in Shanghai for the 16th Shanghai International Arts Festival, which runs from October 16 to November 16. Back for their fourth time is Taiwan’s first professional dance group, Cloud Gate. Known for their exquisite technique and unique choreography, they’ve become cultural ambassadors for their home, performing at the Olympics while racking up prestigious international awards.
Started by Lin Hwai-min, Cloud Gate emerged from the island’s small dance community in 1973. The 67-year-old pinpoints his interest in the art form to watching a performance by famed contemporary dancer Jose Limon as a 14-year-old.
That same year, his first short story was published in United Daily News. Later works like Cicada propelled the teenager up Taiwan’s literary world. Despite the acclaim, Lin spent his earnings learning to dance.
“There are too many brilliant writers out there,” he says. “What the body can articulate doesn’t necessarily make sense in writing and vice versa.”
Deeply influenced by Martha Graham, the ‘Picasso of Dance,’ Lin studied at her Center of Contemporary Dance while living in America on a university scholarship to study journalism.
When he returned to Taiwan, he founded Cloud Gate Dance Company, based on one simple belief, “What I want to do is dance for my people,” Lin says. “I want to take what our ancestors and history have granted and integrate it into dance.”
Bearing that same ideal, the Cloud Gate 2 group formed in 1999, touring every corner of Taiwan. When the disastrous 921 earthquake hit that year, the group went to the affected area for a special performance.
The last thing that concerns Lin is a proper stage; Cloud Gate has performed everywhere from rice fields in the countryside to a basketball court. “Dance has to be related to its surroundings,” he shrugs. “What kind of artist can you be otherwise?”
Dancers are selected from disparate backgrounds, from ballet to martial arts, with Lin introducing tai chi and internal school boxing to their curriculum. He believes both harbor the essence of Chinese art, rooted to its genes.
“I’ve had foreign students before and they can’t make a stand properly,” he says. “They are hardworking, but you can just tell something’s not right with the move or pose.”
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It’s a sentiment he shares with calligraphy, which inspired Cloud Gate’s Cursive series. “You see the the character ‘一’ isn’t written in a horizontal direction, but more like the shape of the number eight,” he explains, comparing strokes to a dancer’s movements. “To me, it’s not the move that matters but the energy they convey.”
The group will be performing the second part of the trilogy Pine Smoke during the festival. Interestingly, the piece utilizes the work of avant-garde musician John Cage. When asked why he didn’t pair the piece with a traditional instrument, he smiles and rhetorically asks, “Can you bear a 70-minute guzheng performance?”
As it turns out, the music – which sounds like a collection of random noises like blasts of wind – not only miraculously synchronizes with the dancers’ breathing, it renders the piece with a sense of mystery and Zen.
The concept has been appreciated worldwide. In 2000, the group performed at the opening of the Sydney Olympics, its show unanimously voted as the best performance by European dance magazines. Last year, Lin became the first Asian choreographer to be awarded a lifetime achievement award at the American Dance Festival, coinciding with Cloud Gate’s 40th anniversary.
Widely considered Asia’s most important choreographer, Lin gives all credit to his ‘happy marriage’ with the dancers. “We spend most of our time together,” he explains. “There are people that come in to learn, but drop out later, which is absolutely fine. It’s like a marriage. You can’t force your partner to sign the paper, can you?”
Gradually, Cloud Gate has become more than a brand, but a local culture. Taiwan proclaimed August 21 as Cloud Gate Day, and tickets for their Mainland shows are gobbled up quickly.
“They are much more demanding now,” Lin admits of local audiences. “The stronger their cravings, the higher our requirements. It’s a great thing.”
// October 16-19, 7.15pm, RMB80-880. Shanghai Oriental Art Center.
Full Shanghai International Arts Festival program available here.