Taiwan’s Aboriginal cultures inspire Cloud Gate’s “Formosa”

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. (Photo by U Chen-Hsiang.)

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre founder and choreographer Lin Hwai-min drew inspiration from Taiwan’s Aboriginal cultures and its colonial history for his latest work “Formosa.”

Lin told the audience before a recent performance that he “read many native poems about Formosa and they were so good.”

But at the same time, he said more recent events motivated him to create his two-hour long Taiwan-centric composition of poems, music and dance. He wanted to create positive images after watching elected representatives in the Taiwan Parliament physically fighting with fists — which he called a show for the television cameras.

“The news we hear every day is so bad,” he said. “And the same combative politicians actually are friends.”

Lin has found that Cloud Gate’s audiences around the world seem to relate to his disgust with political leaders.

Considered one of the finest contemporary dance companies in the world, Taiwan’s Cloud Gate Dance Theatre recently toured the Pacific Northwest for the company’s last visit with Lin, who started the company in 1973 and will retire in 2019.

Lin was born in Taiwan in 1947. At first a noted writer, he began his modern dance training at the age of 23, while working on his MFA degree at the famed Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.

In an open conversation before the performance at Meany Theater on March 22, Lin spoke with Michelle Witt, executive and artistic director of the theater.

Lin said the last time the Cloud Gate Company performed at Meany Theater in 2014, they performed “Songs of the Wanderers.” Lin calls that piece “Rice,” because of the focus of the dance compositions and the falling rice which eventually covers the stage, providing both visual excitement and a contextual element.

“Formosa” debuted in Tawain in November 2017, and it will tour the United States including University of Iowa in Iowa City, Chicago, Chapel Hill (NC), Costa Mesa (CA), Wolfsburg (Germany), London, Paris, and Lisbon.

“The Chinese title of ‘Formosa’ is ‘About the Island,’” Lin said. The Portuguese sailors who first discovered the wooded green island in the 16th century called it “Formosa,” which means beautiful. Lin pointed out that Taiwan has been colonized and ruled for hundreds of years by Portugal, Netherlands, Spain, Japan and, finally, the Republic of China.

It is still not an independent nation, but a state known as Republic of China (Taiwan) or Taiwan (ROC).

He says that the memory of that long, colonized history can be erased and rewritten with new meaning for the Taiwanese people.

This colonial history is a recurring theme in his work. Some of his past dance compositions include content referring to the brutal martial law under a military dictatorship from 1949 to 1987.

This dance production, based on the poems and songs of the Taiwanese Aboriginal people, uses the type script, not painted calligraphy, of the Chinese characters of the poems, combined with a cappella singing of the native songs. Occasional percussion instruments add to the fascinating sound montage.

The oral reading of the poems is meant to set poetry in motion.  With subtitles, the audience can read the words and names of rivers, mountains, villages, and poetry about lovers and love. The poems are in a number of Aboriginal languages still preserved in Taiwan.

Surprisingly, the typescript projected on the wall behind, and on the floor beneath the dancers, is by no means static. It is a moving, animated surface for the dancers to use. The typed characters glide, rush and change size and shade from tones of black to grey to white. At one point, a single vertical white line quickly widens to show it is made up of hundreds of characters. Sometimes they are tiny and dispersed like stars in the sky and sometimes they bunch together and appear as weapons of mass destruction.

“Formosa” features the rough, native singing voice of Sangpuy Katatepan Mavaliyw, of the Pinyumayan indigenous Taiwanese tribe. Still a young man, he has become internationally recognized for his scholarship and intensity in preserving the language and music of his tribe. Other music in the production is provided by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho and the French composer Gerard Grisey.

The superb Taiwanese dancers provide seamless movement and physicality in solos, duets and full company segments. Cloud Gate’s dancers are trained in not only modern dance and ballet, but regularly practice Qi Gong and “internal” martial arts styles based on spiritual or mental aspects, as opposed to “external” martial arts which focus on outward physiological aspects.

Lin has said he will retire in 2019, thus this production of Cloud Gate will be his last visit with the company in North America. It is his 90th choreographed work.

When asked what will become of the company after he leaves, he said that history has shown that some dance companies under a single strong leader have disbanded when that leader dies, such as the renowned Merce Cunningham and his company.

But Lin said he “doesn’t want his company to become a museum” and has been working on promoting young dancers and choreographers through Cloud Gate II, an educational arm of the company which tours to many native villages and schools.

In Seattle, two lead company dancers conducted a master class with 20 Level I dance students at Cornish College of the Arts.

The Cloud Gate company renovated an old building into a beautiful new dance and art center outside of Taipei after its original space burned down in 2008. The center opened in 2015 and serves as a space for art exhibitions as well as dance rehearsals and concerts. The art shows and outdoor productions in the summer attract thousands of visitors. The site is a large piece of rolling natural land, and the interestingly shaped building with its undulating roofline was constructed only with private donations, including a $5 million gift from the Alphawood Foundation in Chicago.

Lin Hwai-min’s vision, intensity, dedication and patient, calm nature will be missed in the international-dance world. His is a shining example of creative artistry combined with pure vision in service to the people of his native Taiwan.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. (Photo by U Chen-Hsiang.)