Cloud Gate Dance Theatre: Lin Hwai-min: A Retrospective

Cloud Gate Online
July 20, 2020

Róisín O’Brien

It is July 2019 and former director of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (雲門舞集), Lin Hwai-min (林懷民), is standing in front of an almost painfully crowded Liberty Plaza in Taipei, Taiwan. “I am a choreographer cultivated and trained by the outdoor audiences,” he says.

This year would have seen new artistic director Cheng Tsung-lung (鄭宗龍) take on the mantle of directing this yearly outdoor gathering. Sadly, like nearly all performances around the world, this has not been possible. Instead, we get to see this film of last year’s performance, titled Lin Hwai-Min: A Retrospective (林懷民舞作精選). For someone not well versed in Cloud Gate’s repertoire, it gives a selective overview of Lin’s work, made all the more poignant by his retirement and some of the older dancers’ departure.

Cycling through works from 1997 up to 2014 is a joy: different influences, eras, styles, and music genres speed past. Excerpts from works such as Moon Water (水月) or Pine Smoke (松煙) are hypnotic and precise. Lin has his dancers fan out in imperceptible shifts, a choreography of duets or solos never quite divided that simply.

2019 Cloud Gate Outdoor Performance in TaipeiPhoto Liu Chen-hsiang
2019 Cloud Gate Outdoor Performance in Taipei
Photo Liu Chen-hsiang

In these contemplative works, the attention demanded and granted by live performance – the shared air and near-synchronised heartbeats – does feel missed. But the poised finale of Pine Smoke (松煙) succeeds in drawing you back in again. The short duet ‘Autumn Path’ from Bamboo Dream (竹夢) benefits from brevity: the dancers are pulled inevitably to the back of the stage, muscles taut as they push and pull against each other.

The dancers often move beneath large projected images on the back wall. In White Water (白水), a solitary figure is eclipsed by a magnified shot of rippling stream. Discordant piano conveys some inaccessible truth that she is grappling with.

In Cursive (行草), Chinese characters are sketched onto the backdrop behind the soloist; or the calligraphy provides a see-through screen which dancers appear behind, ghostlike.

While there is beauty in these abstract pieces, excerpts like ‘White Dress’ from Portrait of the Families (家族合唱) prove the most engaging on film, the pain of loss and tales of communities pulled apart in violent conflict jumping starkly out.

Likewise, excerpts from Rice (稻禾) feature rice fields projected behind the dancers which, combined with the pliable sticks the men dance with, ooze an earthy, lived atmosphere.

‘Black Angel’ from Wind Shadow (風·影) sways into Yeatsian imagery, with lonely darkly-clad figures adrift in some desolate place.

In the middle of the performance, teachers from the company come on stage to ask the audience to move. The camera pans between smiles, a few yawns, plenty of missed beats, and wide-eyed children. The scale seems immensurable: the very set-up, impossibly distant.

Lin Hwai-min: A Retrospective is available on YouTube to July 25, 2020.