It’s not just that it’s 3-and-a-half tons of rice.
It’s that it’s 3-and-a-half tons of high-maintenance rice.
Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan’s “Songs of the Wanderers” is a 90-minute piece in which the performers, including a Buddhist monk who stands stock-still for the whole show, are continually showered in golden rice kernels.
“The source of the work,” Cloud Gate artistic director Lin Hwai-min said in a phone interview last month, “is about different ways of trying to gain peace of mind, if not enlightenment.”
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“Songs,” which debuted in 1994, is by all accounts a profound, mesmerizing, visionary work. But Lin, in conversation, has quite the sense of humor about the challenging logistics behind the production.
“This is performing rice,” he says in lightly accented English. “We have to bring it from Taiwan. … It gets quarantine permissions.”
Then there are the between-productions rice-storage problems.
“The first season, we were so ignorant,” Lin says of all those rice kernels. “We just stored them away — and a couple of months later, we found they’d sprouted. So now we always sterilize them, and then we have to wash them, dry them, dye them, coat them with some little plastic kind of element.”
The plastic coating makes the kernels more solid and less pointed so they won’t hurt the dancers, especially the monk.
“It takes two big guys three weeks to produce a new set of rice,” Lin says. At the start, they think it’s fun. But by the end of the job, their reaction is: “Don’t ask us back to do this again.”
Why three-and-a-half tons of rice?
“I think I like to mess up the stage a bit!” he jokes, before continuing, “Because I grew up in a village where rice paddies spread wide and far.” In images from the show, the rice does appear to form a kind of geography that the dancers navigate.
“It’s a way of arranging things,” Lin concedes, “just like the monks landscape with sand and pebbles in the Zen temples in Japan, right?” When performers move through that landscape, he adds, the result is “very unpredictable but beautiful.”
“Songs” was inspired by a visit Lin made to Bodhgaya, India, the village where Prince Siddhartha found enlightenment and became known as the Buddha: the Awakened One. While some of Lin’s other pieces are agitated in mood, “Songs” is more serene.
“That’s a calmness I took from Bodhgaya, from under the Bodhi tree,” Lin says. “Songs,” he notes, is also a direct outcome of his and the dancers’ spiritual meditation. “That’s a wonderful time in the studio. We spend three or four hours every day just meditating.”
Cloud Gate’s dancers have dealt with challenging stage conditions before, performing on a water-flooded stage or on thousands of plastic pink petals. How they handle potentially slippery rice?
“Our dancers are very grounded. They have a very solid base,” he says. “So they’re capable of doing things on a stage full of obstacles.”
Given Cloud Gate’s international success and the huge reception it got in Taiwan from its very start (more than 3,000 people came to its debut performance, Lin says), it’s startling to learn that Lin initially started out as a writer and by his early 20s had made quite a name for himself in Taiwan.
He fell in love with dance at age 5 after seeing “The Red Shoes,” he explains, but had little opportunity to pursue it. It wasn’t until he attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop that he had a chance to take regular modern-dance classes: “A few weeks later I told my teacher I had choreography I wanted to show her — and she loved it.”
He followed up with classes at the Merce Cunningham Studio and Martha Graham School in New York. Upon returning to Taiwan, however, he still thought of himself as a writer and taught university classes in creative writing and journalism.
Invited to give modern-dance classes in Taipei, he took on a couple of students.
“I taught,” he remembers, “and they wanted to perform.”
By 1973, he had formed Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, expressly with the intent of creating “something different from American modern dance” that would tap more into Asian culture.
“Now 40 years have passed,” he says with wonder, “and I’m still here.”
Though Asian aesthetics dominate Cloud Gate’s productions, the work encompasses Western influences too. “Songs,” for instance, uses the Slavic choral work of the Ensemble Rustavi of Georgia. The singers’ folk song repertoire sounds at times like Gregorian chant.
“Some people think it’s Indian,” Lin says. “Some people think it’s from a Muslim country.”
However you characterize it, it’s a perfect match for “Songs.”
“It’s so spiritual, it moves everybody,” Lin says. “I think music speaks to the heart.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org