You hear the rice before you see it.

As the curtain rises in the darkened theater, a spotlight illuminates a short, narrow vertical shaft of something shimmering. Phase by phase, the strangely fluid shaft grows longer until you register what it is: a steady stream of golden rice rattling down on the head of a Buddhist monk (Wang Rong-yu).

The monk will stand motionless under that shower for almost the entire 90 minutes of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan’s “Songs of the Wanderers.” But the stage world surrounding him will go through struggles, convulsions and precarious balancing acts, before exploding into ecstasy.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre was founded in Taiwan in 1973, and “Songs of the Wanderers,” from 1994, is one of its signature pieces. Cloud Gate’s founder/director, choreographer Lin Hwai-min, describes it as “a work about practicing asceticism … and the quest for quietude.” It was inspired by a trip he made to the village in India where Buddha achieved enlightenment.

Enlightenment, however, doesn’t come easily — and that’s where the controlled tension and reckless prowess of Cloud Gate’s dancers come into the picture. When they first emerge on the stage holding tall gnarled wooden staffs, they slink forward more like hunters than any kind of pilgrim. Their faces are striped in pale tribal markings; their costumes are a bare minimum of loin-cloth and tunic.

Soon their butoh-slow contortions and acrobatics build up to desperate/rapturous expansions of limbs and torso. The maze of golden rice they’ve entered — three and a half tons of it — seems to both entrap them and guide them. At moments of frustration or breakthrough, they fling the rice in golden arcs. Specific dance motions phase in and out, with unison passages frequently dissolving, dancer by dancer, into something new.

The sense of ambiguous progress being made within a gathering timeless stasis is palpable.

While virtuosic solo turns aren’t the point of the piece, two soloists do stand out: Huang Pei-hau and Hou Tang-li in sections dubbed “prayers,” both highlighting prayer as a volatile business, as filled with reversals as it is with hope. The two performers approach their task with intensity and abandon.

Also operating on their own, but on a very different plane, are Wang’s motionless monk and a second figure who appears throughout the piece: Lin Hsin-fang as a rice raker who continually works to create a meditative pattern in the chaos of the flowing rice.

Chang Tsan-tao’s extraordinary, intricate lighting design feels like a character in itself, alternately engulfing and releasing the dancers as it shifts in shape and emphasis.

The choral music accompanying the piece — spare, melancholy folk songs performed by Ensemble Rustavi of Georgia — is the final element that creates the spell onstage. (Some lucky audiences will get to hear Ensemble Rustavi perform them live when Cloud Gate takes “Songs” to Germany in May.)

This is the first time Cloud Gate has performed in Seattle. Judging by the jubilant reception they got, they’ll surely be welcomed back.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com