Dallas — Hwai-min Lin’s entrée into dance didn’t come from the usual places. He was a writer, and in 1969 received a scholarship to study journalism at the University of Missouri, which still has one of the most prestigious J-schools in the country. He was soon invited for a fellowship at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. While there, he discovered dance through his elective courses.
He has published several works of fiction, but his legacy is founding Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan in the early ‘70s, which was the first contemporary dance company in China. The company has enjoyed success ever since. The group has performed in Texas before, but this weekend makes its Dallas debut on the TITAS series at AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House.
Cloud Gate performs Rice, a 70-minute multi-media work that was developed for more than two years after intense research and filming of farmers in a specific rice paddy near Taipei City. Hwai-min Lin chatted with TheaterJones about his background, company and Rice.
TheaterJones: When Cloud Gate began, was there resistance to a contemporary dance company that strayed from traditional Chinese dance styles?
Not really. It was the first professional dance company in Taiwan, the first contemporary in all China. I was a writer before a choreographer/dancer, so the debut performance in Tapei City, there was excitement about it.
How did you discover dance?
I started taking regular dance classes rather late, around 23. When I was working in the writer’s workshop at Iowa, they require you to take other courses, and I took to dance right away. I went back to Taiwan in 1972, I was teaching English and writing full-time.
I grew up in the ’60s when we thought we could and should make a difference. I saw there was no contemporary dance company in Taiwan, and so I started a company with the plan to hand it over to one of the dancers in two years, which tells you how ignorant I was. I had to learn about the business, and then thought I better learn how to choreograph. We never thought of touring to New York, London, Moscow, but we did. Now we’re 43 years old and have a second company, Cloud Gate II.
Who were your modern/contemporary dance influences?
When I was in the U.S. I only saw two or three performances of modern dance. It wasn’t so popular. Now you can see modern dance performances every night, at that time it was rare. Therefore, I had to search into myself. We don’t get to see the foreign companies in Taiwan, and I had to draw from my own culture and myself and figure out a style to express. In the 1980s, I bought a VHS machine and got a couple of videos and I real saw Balanchine. But if I stayed in NY, it would have been hard to crawl out from the shadow of the giants.
We named the company Cloud Gate, the oldest known Chinese dance, and we tried to do productions of our own instead of reproductions of American modern dance. The influence comes more from martial arts and meditation. When I choreograph I draw from the body of dancers who have this kind of training and background.
Talk about the development process for Rice. You spent several years researching the farmers on the rice paddies?
We had a videographer do the filming for two years. We chose a specific rice paddy and tried to document the cycle of rice and how it grows. It was off and on for two years, because the farmer would call us and say the rice is sprouting up so beautifully, but there’s no wind to make the video not look like a still picture. We had to work with nature.
Did the dancers go there to observe the workers in the paddies?
Some. It was back-breaking experience, working with the harvest of the rice. You sweat, the wind dries the sweat, it’s wet and muddy, and when you walk you sink into the field.
We didn’t copy that movement, but spiritually it affected us a lot.
It was so wonderful for them to learn that rice doesn’t grow in the supermarket. It’s from the soil and sweat of the farmers. We take for granted what we know about rice, but we eat it everyday. We depict the elements we sense in the film. Sunlight, fire, insects, pollen, heat, all in abstract way.
What do you look for in your dancers?
The body type is not that important, it’s the personality of each individual. With our dancers, you can see them doing the same movements, but they all look different. In the end they have to love what they are doing.
Now that you’ve been doing this for so long, and seeing other choreographers’ work, and of course there’s the immediacy and luxury of YouTube, how has that changed your process?
I’m a garbage can. I pick up things. I read, I listen, I look at things. When I was younger I was fascinated with Merce Cunningham. He opened the doors by saying “hey there are endless possibilities and you have to work hard to find what you love to do.”