A Conversation with Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s Founder Lin Hwai-Min on His Latest Dance Piece ‘Formosa’

By Tracy Wang

After its tour of ‘Songs of the Wanderers’ to Meany Hall of University of Washington in 2014, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, under the leadership of the renowned choreographer Lin Hwai-Min, marked its return to Meany Hall on March 22, and brought Lin’s latest creation ‘Formosa’ to the many audiences in Seattle.

LIU Chen-hsiang

Since 1973, as the first full-time modern dance company in Taiwan, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre has performed over sixty pieces, and become one of the best modern dance companies around the world. Starting from many major cities in the United States, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre is taking ‘Formosa’, a piece deeply inspired and about Taiwan, on a world tour, and Seattle is the last city of its US tour.

At the beginning of ‘Formosa’s’ creation, Lin had gathered many poems or texts that describe Taiwan, its culture, its scenery, its many towns, and its abundance of mountains and rivers. As CHIANG Hsun recites the texts, the texts are projected onto the backdrop at the same time. At first, all the texts and poems are complete, and moving at the same pace. However, as the piece progresses, these Chinese characters that emit and paint the scent and beauty of Taiwan start to drift away, and ‘become the pigment on the canvas, the rivers, and the mountains’. However, even the rivers and mountains start to disperse and fade away, till all of them come together, and become some deadly weapons, that drop right onto the dancers’ bodies. Violence explodes on the stage, and all the bodies drop in total darkness.

LIU Chen-hsiang

The echo of the violence remains onstage, and darkness seems to have devoured everyone and everything. But just when we are afraid that the dance is ending in darkness, an array of stars slowly appear on the backdrop, beckoning the bodies to awake and keep going. One body struggles up, and fights to stay up. She staggers to the other bodies, and tries hard to give them a hand, and some hope to stand and continue on. The violence is scattered into the wind by their wishes to survive, to live on. With help from each other, all of them stand up; left with only radicals of the traditional Chinese, they hold their arms out for each other, and file away, till the waves crashes onstage, and erases everything.

Talking about the essence and spirit of ‘Formosa’, Lin said ‘’Formosa’ is a piece that draws materials from Taiwan, even the music is getting its material from Taiwan, but it is in truth discussing a universal situation, one that happens in every human society’. The first half of the piece focuses on painting the four seasons on the island of Taiwan, and the simple life the people of Taiwan lead. From not knowing each other, to relying on each other, it draws a picture of how they encounter and develop relationships. But as the Chinese characters on the backdrop change, this piece transforms from a peaceful society to one that is ripped apart by violence and division. ‘It is a work that is describing a society that moves from a place of peace with a beautiful environment to a place of decay and violence’, said Lin. Though it draws material from Taiwan’s many natural disasters and societal division, Lin believes that this change from peace to violence is a situation that takes place in every country in the world, among every groups of people.

LIU Chen-hsiang

A dance piece that is filled with the culture, nature, and texts of Taiwan, some people had voiced their concern as to whether people who do not understand traditional Chinese can still fully enjoy and appreciate ‘Formosa’. However, in contrast to their concerns, Lin had found that the audiences in Taiwan, and in the United States had very similar reaction to ‘Formosa’. The universality of its topic allows the audiences to ‘interpret what they see with their life experiences; what they receive from the piece, though the details might vary, the resulting reaction and emotions are the same’. Many audiences from Taiwan had tears trickling down their cheeks, but the performances often received a thundering ovation from almost all of its audiences in both countries.

Although the whole piece is mainly talking about the life of the people living on the island of Taiwan, the texts and poems in fact reflect on some other significant societal issues such as urban refurbishment, and environmentalism in Taiwan and around the world. ‘Formosa’ begins with an abundance of references to the nature sceneries in Taiwan; the background texts take us back to a place in history, or draw a vivid and familiar place. However, as the divide among people continue to grow, the remaining Chinese characters that are referring to the sky, an animal, or a plant slowly disappear one by one, till we are left with a blank canvas.

LIU Chen-hsiang

The beautiful island that was once in our eyes and ears walk toward its own decay and ruin, and we are only left with the shadows of what we used to have. Through ‘Formosa’, the older generations that are from Taiwan, again witness the changes that forever changed Taiwan, while the younger generations sigh deeply, because what they see is a piece of Taiwan they never had a chance to explore and embrace.

Started to officially learn modern dance at the age of 23, Lin created Cloud Gate Dance Theatre at the age of 26, and has since led the only full-time dance company in Taiwan for forty-five years. He has brought the company and its works to many famous theatres around the globe, and has insisted on having free dance performances for the people of Taiwan. Till this year, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre has given free performances to thousands of people in Taiwan for 23 years, and has thus introduced modern dance to many families who might not otherwise have the chance to enjoy dance. To Lin, free performances are crucial, because he believes that ‘the equalized wealth of people’s spiritual worlds can be fought for’.

Barry LAM

Lin, 72-year-old this year, had announced his retirement at the end of 2019 last year, and has since been making changes to the dance company. Because many dance companies around the world ended either of the retirement of its founder or the death of its founder, Lin decided to retire when he can still help make a smooth transition for the company.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre has thrived under his leadership, and his dance pieces, but Lin hopes that the dance company will not only perform his pieces. A choreographer who pays attention to the latest news and changes in society, he believes that ‘Cloud Gate Dance Theatre should be a platform for more new and young choreographers who can use their unique voices and styles to speak with the younger generation of audiences’. As the founder of this dance company, he does not care much if it still performs his works, ‘but he hopes that Cloud Gate Dance Theatre can continue to perform for the people of Taiwan and the rest of the world’.

For more information of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre or Lin Hwai-Min, please visit: http://www.cloudgate.org.tw/