Monday, March 22, 2010

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s Lin Hwai-min moves his Bodhgaya memories to dance stage

By Nancy T. Lu

Do you ever stop to look and listen to the river – rippling, flowing, rushing, angrily swelling, dangerously overflowing or even dying? Do you ever heed what it is trying to say?

Do you still have to be awakened to see and hear the message of the river? Or does it have to take disastrous floods like those brought by typhoon Morakot on August 8, 2009, to make you notice the crying and wailing of Mother Nature?

“Listening to the River” – an 80-minute production of the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre – raises these questions and more.

Lin Hwai-min, artistic director and choreographer of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, has lived next to the Tamshui River longer than two decades. Often away on long tours, he feels he is home at last only when he sees the all-too-familiar river once more.

But particularly on an unforgettable meditation trip to Bodhgaya, famous as the place in India where the Buddha attained enlightenment, Lin looked out from his balcony one day and saw men and women bathing in the River Niranjana (now called Falgu).

That night, Lin was roused from sleep by the commotion outside. When he got up to check what was going on, he caught sight of mourners throwing ashes of cremated bodies into the river, rendering the water murky. He caught glimpses of red cloth and food offerings during the sacred ritual of sending off the departed to another world. The next day, however, he noticed that the river had been cleansed completely of all traces of the activities of the night before. Peace and quiet, too, had returned to the river.

And so Lin began reflecting on his river experiences, not just in the faraway exotic land of Buddhist meditation but also right in his home turf in Pali. Ideas for a new piece of choreography began to flow out of his mind and take shape. “Listening to the River” was born.

Video clips and not just still photographs play an important role in the new production, “Listening to the River.” Upon Lin’s instruction, Howell Hao-jan Chang spent six months shooting them around Taiwan. Lin envisioned their use as backdrop for the new dance. He also wanted the Cloud Gate dancers to carry on emotional dialogues with the running images.

The special projector acquired by the dance company for convenient use even on tours (Most theaters no longer have the budget to allow the company to spend three days just setting up the stage for a production, according to Lin.) brings out a river’s dramatic and even amazing faces on a white cloth in “Listening to the River.” The changing colors caught by the eye of the camera are dazzling.

In the end, failure to capture satisfactory footage of burning water lanterns in a true-to-life setting forced the simulated staging of the Ghost Month ritual on the bank of Tamshui River after dark one day according to the precise instructions of perfectionist Lin.

Lin himself confessed: “In creating a piece of choreography, I ended up making a movie, too.”

The process of creating “Listening to the River” required Lin to hold a lot of technical discussions with his team including Lulu W.L. Lee for lighting design, Lin Keh-hua for visual and set design, Ethan Wang for projection design and Howell Hao-jan Chang for videography. .

Because Lin was there to direct the filming of the lacking portion, he made sure that the cameraman zeroed in on the images – resembling flashbacks of his Bodhgaya experience – which he wanted to recreate from the beginning.

As a burning water lantern sails out in the dark, slow-moving dancers become like a funeral entourage saying goodbye on the riverbank. Even the music sounds just like the kind accompanying a funeral cortege. The dancer representing the mourned person on the right side of the stage breaks into a powerful dance expression of what seems like liberation from worldly suffering and pain.

Death as theme (even the selected lachrymose and elegiac music of the opening scene says it) gets a calm and mature treatment from 63-year-old choreographer Lin. There is no sense of panic, only calm and quiet, notably towards the end.

The production depicts at one point a river swelling and swirling dangerously. Filmed footage of dancers blends with images of the Dajia River (said to have been shot just a day after destructive typhoon Morakot struck Taiwan). Performers are seemingly tossed around, finally overpowered and swallowed up just like victims of the floods last year.

The time comes for the dancers on the left side of the stage to alternately bend their knees somewhat, making their heads appear as if they are bobbing in the water. But everything seems surreal like a painting.

Video images technically and artistically suggest a river overflowing, even slowly spilling out onto the stage floor and threatening to inundate the theater.

Lin explained that the screen for running the video images in the 10-part choreography is intentionally kept slightly reduced in size to prevent the company dancers in street clothes from being completely dwarfed and overshadowed on the stage. One portion even sees the backdrop transformed into a mirror for the solo dancer.

The fluid and colorful body language of the Cloud Gate dancers whether doing solo, duo, trio or group dance is not lost on the audience. Disciplined bodies take turns articulating mood swings in the metaphor on mortality of not just man but even of Mother Earth.

Dance poetry even competes with video art in stimulating the spectator into reflecting on thoughts such as death and loss, which sometimes leave the onlooker on the verge of crying a river.
“Listening to the River” is an attempt to probe the human mind and heart. What indeed is the river trying to say? Lin encourages every viewer to leave the theater with a personal answer at the end of a performance.

After the Taipei run at the National Theater from March 18 to 21, Cloud Gate’s “Listening to the River” will move to the Tainan Cultural Center on April 10 and 11 and then to the Chung Shan Hall in Taichung on April 17 and 18.

Photographs have been provided by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre.

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