“We broaden the horizons of the people. We provide food for the soul.”
—Lin Hwai-min (Haus der Kulturen der Welt)
With the production of “Rice” by the acclaimed Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, the dance company’s founder and artistic director, Lin Hwai-min, celebrated over 40 years of innovative, award-winning dance productions which have earned international praise and respect. Having studied initially journalism at the University of Missouri and completing his graduate education at the University of Iowa, Lin fell back to a passion of his since his early childhood—dance. While attending graduate school, he took classes at the school’s dance department which had a strong, positive influence on him prompting him to study at the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance in New York. Already a successful writer with a number of published works under his belt, he returned to Taiwan to create the Department of Dance at the Taipei National University of the Arts when he realized that there was no longer a school for modern dance. He started teaching and performing which eventually led to creating Cloud Gate where he could choreograph beautiful dances for the community which recently had entertained up to 60,000 spectators per performance in Taiwan alone. In 1999, Lin opened Cloud Gate 2 to foster young talent and promote aspiring dancers and choreographers in neighboring regions. Ultimately, Cloud Gate became “the first contemporary dance company in all Chinese-speaking communities in Taiwan.” Upon reflection, Lin admits that like much of his productions, the establishment of the dance company arose organically. He had no professional experience in choreography or running a dance company, yet Cloud Gate has become one of the most successful dance companies in the world with critically-acclaimed productions like Legacy, the story of families emigrating from mainland China to Taiwan 400 years ago, to the “Songs of the Wanderers,” a story about an endless pilgrimage inspired by Lin’s travels to India, to “Moon Water” a play inspired by tai chi tao yin and meditation, along with the “Cursive” trilogy that expanded the themes of tai chi into Chinese calligraphy.
Eastern and western influences along with an infusion of history and political awareness and commentary are identified in many of Cloud Gate’s productions reflecting many genres stemming from ballet to the ritual dances of the Taiwanese aborigines, yet the company’s style has evolved into something uniquely characteristic. Cloud Gate’s repertoire includes a fusion of “Asian mythology, folklore, and aesthetics with a modern sensibility”. Professor Yatin Lin of Taipei’s National University described the dance company’s influences originating mainly from Martha Graham’s dance techniques to Peking Opera movements using recently Tai Chi and Chinese martial arts into many of its performances. She connects much of Lin’s work to Taiwan’s changing national identity as the politics between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan had strained relations since the late 1970s. Cloud Gate’s work, according to Lin, is a reaction to the soci-economic realities of his country. “I live and work in Taiwan. I draw from my life. I’m inspired and frustrated with the mess around it. There’s something very lyrical. Something that draws from the history. This time (referring to ‘Rice’) from the rice fields. It’s not an artistic policy per say. It’s just a natural reaction to what’s around.” It’s a recurring theme that he admits seems to naturally evolve with every production. If he hadn’t visited the village in the East Rift Valley, he wouldn’t have produced his latest project. He had no intention to do “field work” into the political issues facing the agriculture in Taiwan. It just happened to have occurred that way. Nevertheless, Lin has felt compelled to comment on the current events affecting his country outside the dance world often engaging in open debates. “Words are more direct and less ambiguous than movements in discussing issues,” commented Lin. However, he doesn’t believe he deserves to be considered a “cultural ambassador” for Taiwan as Yatin Lin once described him. Instead, he would like to be thought of as someone who wanted to do something for society in the form of dance.
Now, Lin’s latest masterpiece, “Rice” will be presented at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles on January 29, 2016. It is a lyrical journey into the world of rice production inspired mainly by Lin’s visit to the Chihshang village in the East Rift Valley of Taiwan. During his stay, he had witnessed the local farmers’ efforts to return to organic, traditional farming practices after a period of utilizing chemical fertilizers which harmed the soil and severally damaged the quality of the rice in the region, which was once proudly titled, “Land of the Emperor Rice.” Inspired by the farmers’ protests against the “modern” industrial movement towards rice production, Lin decided to produce his latest project following the cycle of rice production hiring cinematographers to document the journey for 2 years that included the flooding, harvesting, and burning of the fields and infusing those images into his dance project, which is rarely seen in any current dance performance. Large video projections showcasing rice paddy fields adorn the stage for both the dancers and the audience with which to interact. In fact, dancers were taken to the village to help farmers harvest the rice and experience first-hand the life of working in the fields. The visual images and set pieces are accompanied by a musical cocktail of Taiwanese and Japanese drums, Western opera, the sounds of nature, and most notably the Chinese folk music of the Hakka, an ethnic Chinese minority from China’s coastal province of Guangdong who were known for their proficiency in rice farming. The dance production itself has been described as a chronicling of the cyclical changes in nature from its creation to its inevitable destruction while acting as a metaphor to human existence. It emphasizes the delicate balance nature has which can be offset by human malignancy while stressing the importance of its preservation.
The topic of environmental awareness is an important theme in “Rice” for rural communities in Taiwan as the subject of globalization and western farming influences resonates for a country trying to preserve one of its precious and vital natural resources. The cultivation of rice in the Chinese provinces coincidentally are crucial to the country’s agricultural economy since they make up less than half of the country’s grain output contributing to ¼ of the world’s rice production. Rice farming in itself is highly labor-intensive. Fertilizers are normally used and rice cultivation technology is minimally advanced enough to increase yields while reducing the labor intensity of the work. Therefore, a reliance on chemically-enhanced, nutrient laced fertilizers and pesticides have increased while polluting the country’s soil and groundwater. According to a survey by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences’ (CAAS) Soil and Fertilizer Institute in 2012, average levels of nitrogen fertilizer exceeded international safety standards for ½ of China’s regions. In addition, they had predicted then that all central and south-eastern provinces were at risk of suffering groundwater nitrate pollution by 2015 based on a survey of vegetable farms in 20 counties. As such, many of the farmers from villages like Chihshang had protested the use of such chemicals and other western-influenced farming methods that only harmed their land and threatened their health. These examples of rural protest and discontent inspired Lin to produce his next project on the beauty of the natural rice production of the land in Taiwan hoping to raise an appreciation of the land and an awareness of the industrial mechanization that threatens it.
As Cloud Gate prepares to premiere its latest gem in Downtown Los Angeles, the Music Center staff at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion prepare for an amazing turnout for its annual dance series—Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center. “Rice” will be among the many performance pieces highlighting the Music Center’s prestigious dance series presenting some of the most re-known ballets and contemporary dance artists the West Coast has ever seen. Performances for the series will be held at either one of the Music Center’s theatres (the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Ahmanson Theatre, or the Walt Disney Concert Hall). Cloud Gate’s production will be performing on January 29, 30, and 31 where a special pre-show event will be held for each day of the performance. Tickets can be reserved online at www.musiccenter.org where they can range between $25-$110. Both Lin Hwai-min and the Music Center’s Associate Vice President of Programming, Michael Solomon are equally excited for the night of the premiere. Both were asked to share their thoughts on “Rice”, Cloud Gate , and the significance of the dance production.
James Daza: I understand you have a big opening weekend for your next production called, Rice. Could you please tell me more about the production? What is Rice? What is it about? And how did you first learn about the story that inspired it?
Lin Hwai-min: It’s about the rice production. It was inspired by my visit to the village in the eastern coast of Taiwan that is famous for it’s beautiful rice. When I went there, I was so touched by the immense ocean of waves of the rice. Because in Taiwan, most of the rice fields you will find poles, a twisted poles in the middle of the rice field, but not there. When the electricity company wanted to install those poles, the farmers started to protest. They wanted to protect the beauty of their village. So, we asked a photographer to film one specific rice field to document the cycle of the rice. During spring time you let it water and you let the babies (rice crops) grow. Harvest. And the farmers set the fire after the harvest. The whole field is so barren and savage. And of coarse what comes to end, will come again. So, that is this kind of production. It’s this kind of images that make the landscape of “Rice” the production. The production covers the backdrop and from overhead, it covers the whole floor. So, it’s a portrayal of this kind of environment. Of this kind of thing. There’s no story. No narrative, but with sections like soil, wind, water, fire, pollen, and rice grains. So we use the elements of the Earth to the rice field to think about. Of coarse, we know that the cycle of rice is somewhat similar to human cycle. Human life. It’s an exciting theatrical presentation.
James Daza: How do you feel about presenting Cloud Gate Dance Theatre at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion?
Michael Solomon: This is something we actually been want to do on our dance series for a long time now. Cloud Gate is I would say the leading and publicly best known modern dance company in Asia. They’re very well known, very well respected. They are the first contemporary company to have been created in Taiwan. It’s been a company we have had our eye on for a long time because we think Los Angeles audiences should have the opportunity to see them, and it has just taken a few years for their touring schedule to match our schedule of availability for the theatre. And this is the first year that we have been able to work it out. It’s just a company we had wanted to bring here for some time now.
JD: What moved you to do the production?
Lin: Well, the beauty of the rice field and the farmers of the village of Chihshang. Chihshang was famous for its Emperor’s Rice. Because of its role during the depression, the farmers were ordered to limit the rice to the royal family, the culture, everything. After the war, they followed the example of the other villages to use chemicals for the rice. In the 90s, a group of younger people started to promote organic farming. Nowadays, they export rice to the European Union countries. I was touched by their effort. The beauty and the harmony between the wind and nature. So, I was thinking to do something about it. So, I did and it’s been very popular. Last September, we were in NY, The work has been presented in London, Germany, and Moscow. We will go to Paris in the spring. I think the reason it get so popular it is a tender longing about nature. There’s a sense of purity in the work. Nothing really complicated. Which is the beauty of nature. That’s how I feel about it.
JD: What makes hosting this particular production the music center so special?
MS: Besides bringing in the company, they’re (Cloud Gate) doing a piece called Rice which they created for their 40th anniversary, This particular piece deals a lot with environmental issues having to do with water, the land and chemically-tainted land. I think that the issues are all on the top of people’s minds right now especially in California with 4 years of drought. I think people have environmental issues on their minds. I think with organic produce and so forth being a lot what people think. I think people are more aware of chemicals and pesticides and so forth and the dangers of those things. So having a dance piece that happens to be created about this and I think will resonate with the actual story, inturn will resonate with people. Just for dance lovers, this company has some incredible beautiful dancers. I’m sure people will want to see.
JD: How would you describe the choreography behind the production? How does it blend the Asian and Western influences to the visual elements of the production?
Lin: Actually, Blending was never the intention. We do put in the things from different disciplines of East and West like martial arts, Qi Gong, and of coarse, we have some ballet. When I’m choreographing, I just drew from…I use the body blending different disciplines instead of borrowing from routines and just chopping them together. No, that’s not the case.
JD: How did you first developed the choreography? Was there any particular set plan or were you just experimenting with ideas before you came up with something that you felt that was direction you wanted to take the production?
Lin: In fact, I spent a long time to find the right quality of movement before really launching into the actual choreography. So, we’re looking for the movements and materials is the task and be prepared for Rice. We went to the village to harvest the rice with the farmers. It’s back-breaking but spiritually, its an uplifting experience. It’s very hard to explain in that your body is in pain, you lose weight, and you’re heart is in the wind toward the field. You could stand on your [own] and that’s a kind of feeling you don’t get in normally. The earth sinks and it’s a very wonderful experience that you don’t get the way.
JD: What got your attention on Cloud Gate? What caught your eye that you wanted to seek them out and to bring them over to LA?
MS: It has alot to do with Mr. Lin and his particular choreography. His choreography includes those Eastern and Western traditions. He draws off from more traditional Chinese dance styles as well as from more contemporary or what I would call more western, more European style dance. That’s what caught my eye. The mix of what we think is contemporary dance or may have a European tradition but also includes some martial arts and some more traditional Chinese forms. I think it’s a fascinating thing to watch dance. The other thing that really caught my eye about this company is they’re one of the first companies to incorporate video into the dance. So you see a lot of dancers on stage but there’s an entire other art form with the video that has been created that the dancers actually perform in front of at some point and actually seem to be interacting with other points. That mix of video with live art is just relatively new I would say in the dance world. It’s certainly not been a part of most of the companies that were brought to the Music Center before. So, that was another reason I wanted to bring this company here for people are able to experience the mixed media within a dance concert.
JD: I understand that the visual sets and the production’s artistic design is quite extraordinary. Could you elaborate on them, and how the Music Center helped accommodate the dance company’s production needs?
MS: Our stage can accommodate pretty much anything because we’re physically…We are a large theatre. For this particular design, a lot of it is done with video. So, what we needed to do was install video screens and install projectors and make that work around the actual, physical set pieces. But we have the space to do it. Technically, we can handle something like that.
JD: How would you describe your dance company, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre?
Lin: I read an article in Europe that we are a company like no other. I mean we have language of our own and the diversity and the richness of our repertoire. I think it’s a good difference from the other companies. We have the history, the cultural heritage, the nature, sometimes the purpose or issue of Taiwan and events like this is evolved actually. Evolved. I hope the evolution continues in motion and body. Don’t stop evolving. That’s bad.
JD: Do you have any special plans for the premiere which is happening on, Jan 29?
MS: Yeah. Actually, for all the performances, we’re adding a few things around all of the performances. We’re having pre-performance talks in front of the theatre which is free to ticket-holders. If you come to the theatre early, you can enjoy pre-performance talks. We’re doing that on purpose so that people who are interested can learn a little bit more about the company and learn a little more about the choreography. We’re doing Tai’Chi demonstrations; that’s part of that as well. Again because a lot of the audience is not necessarily familiar with Tai’ Chi or any of the martial arts let alone how they would be incorporated into a dance. And we have a participatory activity which we hadn’t done before which is silk screening. So, after the performance, if anyone who want to stay in the theatre actually in our lobbies. I should be more specific about that. We’ll have all these tables set up, and we’ve hired a number of artists for people can create their own silk screen bags and projects because we thought that would be kind of fun for people to be able to do that and have those additional activities, which again are things we don’t necessarily normally do with dance concerts.
JD: How was the experience for you when your company formed?
Lin: It’s demanding. It’s wonderful. In fact, here I am in Berkeley. I grew up in the 60s. That was the era I grew up. I was a young person. I wanted to do something for the society. So, I started the dance company. That’s how we started. The reason we were a company is to do something for the society especially the students on the campus, the families, and the people in the community. Nowadays, we’re giving and presenting 3-4 outdoor performances in different cities every year. We’ve had performances for a crowd of minimum 30,000 people. It’s a very good journey full of hardship and full of surprises.
JD: I understand that the Music Center started its dance series. Could you please describe what the series is about and how long it’s going to last?
MS: We haven’t just started it. This is the… I think this is the 12th season for the dance season. 12 or 13th. What we do with the dance at the Music Center series..It’s a series of dance productions from a series of dance companies. It’s a diverse kind of program. We want to present a mix of ballet companies and contemporary dance. The idea being that there’s something for everyone who likes dance and we did at some point during the year highlight that. What we want is the best of the best. The best in international dance companies. So, with the many dance companies we have presented or work to continue to present are companies that people are more familiar with like American LA Theatre, or the Jofferey Ballet, American dance studios. The other companies we have brought in and i would include Cloud gate in that are internationally renowned companies that Los Angeles audience may not have had a chance to see. So, we want to …we like to include it for people to see it as well.
JD: Where is the “Rice” production headed after LA?
Lin: Santa Barbara, Dallas, Austin, TX, and Kennedy Center.
JD: What other dance productions do you have in store for the public?
MS: For this year, after Cloud Gate, we have a company called Complex Constructions contemporary ballet, They are an east-coast based company. Their work is contemporary in style but it’s drawn from ballet. They have a multicultural dance company. After that, we have a company called Casig, which is a Brazilian dance company. We’ve had a company from Brazil before, but this will be their first time. They are actually a hip hop company. That will be new for a lot of people to see hip hop dance in concert dance style.
JD: Do you hold a special tour for student groups who want to explore the Music Center?
MS: Yeah. We do. We Make Music is available for tours for anybody. They offer tours 7 days a week For school groups… Yes. They have to call ahead of time so we have enough staff on hand depending on the size of the school, but we do. I should also mention part of the dance program…One of our productions we did in the fall, and Cloud Gate and the upcoming Complexion Ballet in addition to the performances that are open for the public…Those 3 engagements also have a student performance during the day time which is free for schools. We invited the schools, they have to sign up for it because we really have so many seats. We did 3 of our 6 dance productions this year including a free performance for schools.
Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s “Rice” marks the 40th anniversary of the first Taiwanese dance company that has amazed audiences around the globe warmly receiving critical accolades and helped shape an identity for its people instilling national pride and self-awareness. Emerging from humble beginnings, founder and artistic director, Lin Hwai-min solidifies his artistic legacy for future generations. With a warm chuckle and down-to-earth charisma, Lin has traveled the world promoting his dance company’s latest work while stirring an awareness for the environment and its inescapable connection to human survival. “Rice” not only celebrates the beauty and awe of nature, but it also celebrates the natural cycle of human life. It is a journey into one’s own conscience and reminds the innate duty of our species to act as responsible stewards of our own planet. We are active members of this eco-system and a part of this planet. Failure to care for this world’s natural resources may only lead our species closer to our own destruction. Therefore, it’s best to listen and pay attention to how our actions are affecting our only home.
Jan 29, 2016 | 7:30 p.m.
Jan 30, 2016 | 7:30 p.m.
Jan 31, 2016 | 2:00 p.m.
DOROTHY CHANDLER PAVILION
135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90012