Sublime Mystery: Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s “Songs of the Wanderers,” at Carolina Performing Arts

The first time I saw Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan was in the 1990s, when the American Dance Festival presented founder and choreographer Lin Hwai-min’s Songs of the Wanderers (1994) in Page Auditorium. This visually spectacular 90-minute meditation on spiritual questing, bodily joy and suffering, stillness and transformation, is one of those rare artworks that live on in one’s soul, sending up vividly remembered sequences through the murk of consciousness as one continues one’s own journey. It is the kind of thing that you leave the theater feeling profoundly grateful to have experienced. To have had the opportunity to see it again–it was like winning the lottery. The odds were against it. But on April 2, Carolina Performing Arts gave us old-timers the big prize of a second chance, while introducing hundreds more to this beautiful dance. In addition to adding another star to CPA’s crown of achievements, the successful return of this hugely-scaled and hugely expensive performance to this area speaks clearly of the growing audience here for dance-theatre of the highest caliber. Memorial Hall sold out.

An instant from Songs of the Wanderers, by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Photo courtesy Carolina Performing Arts.

An instant from Songs of the Wanderers, by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Photo courtesy Carolina Performing Arts.

Inspired by the life of the Buddha, and its telling in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, as well as Lin Hwai-min’s own instinctive and cultivated understanding of movement’s necessity to the body and the soul, Songs of the Wanderers takes us on the journey of Life, signified by the 3 and one-half tons of golden rice that rains onto the stage, some of it falling onto the head of a monk who remains motionless under its fall as it piles up to his knees. The dance is full of struggle and surprise, unrestrained sensuality, and reverence. Order meshes with chaos. Golden light stabs across the patterns, and carves through the velvet dark revealing groups of bodies in new actions and arrangements. The dancers of Cloud Gate are among the most controlled and sinuous in the world, and can move slowly or with explosive speed through a lyric of motion where rigid angles are made to rhyme with fluid curves, and delicate flutters embellish large actions. Here they move to chanted Georgian folk songs. Although that looks odd in print, the combination is excellent in action. Lin Hwai-min’s multiculturalism is the real thing.

After the dance culminates with a ritual involving bowls of fire, veiled women and ecstatic whirling, and the dancers have left the stage, another dancer who has come and gone through the rice with his huge long-handled rake returns to form the rice into a spiral covering the stage, as if he were grooming a golden Zen garden. As engrossing and absorbing and thrilling as the ensemble dancing is, this focused act takes you another step towards nirvana, and its resulting beauteous form releases something in the chest, some block to joy. You breathe deeply, and smell the rice, raised up in golden ridges–here for but a moment, here forever.

YouTube video from Songs of the Wanderers

My June 2003 review of Cloud Gate at ADF

My September, 2007 review of Cloud Gate at Carolina Performing Arts

My October, 2011 review of Cloud Gate at Carolina Performing Arts

My July, 2013 post on Lin Hwai-min accepting ADF’s Scripps Award, with comments on the dance that followed 

The Guardian‘s February, 2014 review of new work, RICE, performed in London

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Moonglow and Fireworks: ADF’s 80th Season Closes Tonight

At the beginning, it seems so luxuriously long. But each year on the final weekend, the American Dance Festival season feels painfully short. The ADF’s 80th season–its 36th in Durham–ends tonight at the Durham Performing Arts Center with the second performance of a beautifully constructed program featuring a spectacular ending.

It won’t be quite the same as the 26th’s, when the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement was presented to Lin Hwai-min, choreographer and founder of the breathtaking Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Another appropriate adjective for Lin Hwai-min’s work is “humane.” His choreographic language is most definitely not American: it comes very close to being universal. The award, with its $50,000 check, was presented by Joseph V. Melillo, executive producer at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, who met Lin Hwai-min by chance in Bali in 1990–“and beautiful things for both of us came out of that meeting.” Lin Hwai-min gave the most graceful acceptance speech I’ve ever heard. Here are the highlights.

Lin Hwai-min, 2013 Scripps/ADF Award winner at the ceremony, 7-26-13. Photo: Grant Halverson.

Lin Hwai-min, 2013 Scripps/ADF Award winner at the ceremony, 7-26-13. Photo: Grant Halverson.

“This is an enormous encouragement, especially for a person who did not begin taking regular dance classes until he was 23,” said Lin Hwai-min, going on to note that he had been inspired by the famous John F. Kennedy quote (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”). “There was no Taiwan modern dance company, so I started one.” That was in 1973, and in 1978, he came to the ADF for the first time, in its first year in Durham. “The biggest thing I learned in 1978 was that I could do anything but American modern dance!”

“Running a dance company is tough anywhere,” he said, “but an award like this, a gesture like this, will sustain me for months.” He then went on to tell a moving story about a crucial incident early in his company’s life. “I first met Miss Graham [the great Martha Graham, priestess of high modern dance and a co-founder of the ADF] when her company visited Taiwan in 1974…’What am I going to do with Martha Graham in my own studio?’ I asked myself. I did what only the bravest, youngest would do–I held a Graham Technique class!”

Miss Graham, he said, was happy, and praised Lin and the company, which was just a year old. Imagine what this must have meant to them. Lin took her to the airport, and before she departed, she told him that many had helped her when she was starting out, and pressed into his hands a pile of Taiwanese money, “for your rainy days.” And now, Lin said from the podium, he would give his award money to Cloud Gate for a special project to nurture younger dance artists. A man worthy of honor, indeed.

Chou Chang-ning of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre performed a solo from Lin Hwai-min's Moon Water. Photo: Grant Halverson.

Chou Chang-ning of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre performed a solo from Lin Hwai-min’s Moon Water. Photo: Grant Halverson.

An exquisite example of Lin Hwai-min’s work opens the dance program. Chou Chang-ning of Cloud Gate dances a solo from Moon Water (1998), to the Sarabande, Suite No. 1 in G Major (BWV 1007), from the Six Suites for Solo Cello, by J. S. Bach (the Mischa Maisky DG recording). It is an expression of the duality within wholeness–the dancer moves in a private meditation, untouchable, unreachable, but which we can see like we see the moon’s reflection in water. The reflection is not the moon, but it brings us closer to comprehension of the moon. The moon we see in the sky is too far, too separate; we know her by her actions as she throws her light onto water. The dance is not the dancer, but without her the dance cannot be known. The dancer is not the dance; she is as contained and apart as the celestial moon, but with her graceful motion she lures us toward the enlightenment conjoining shimmering illusion and  dark substance.

There follows a reconstruction of the “Helios” section from Martha Graham’s Acts of Light (one of ADF’s lesser-known roles is that of restorer and preserver of modern dances that have almost gotten away), danced by students from the ADF School. In their golden unitards, in golden lighting (Beverly Emmons, recreated by David Ferri), the young dancers are like sunflowers: sprouting, burgeoning, turning, flowering, dying to sprout anew. There were some roughish moments in the ensemble, and one dancer who looked like he might be falling ill, as he was distractingly out of synchronization and clearly having balance problems, but the dance itself is charming and enlivening, and one feels grateful it has not been lost in the dust of history.

From the reconstructed "Helios" section of Martha Graham's Acts of Light, performed by ADF students. Photo: ©Grant Halverson/ADF.

From the reconstructed “Helios” section of Martha Graham’s Acts of Light, performed by ADF students. Photo: ©Grant Halverson/ADF.

Next comes a reconstruction of a quirky Bill T. Jones dance from 1992 (how quickly dances can be lost!), Love Re-defined. It is restaged here by Leah Cox, who was a very memorable member of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company last decade. She has gotten great dancing from the 10-member ensemble who zip through the strange little love-story vignettes with verve. Whether making the angular ideograms or performing the elastic partnering of Jones’ style, the dancers are right on it. The work is set to strange poetic lyrics and music by Daniel Johnston, and the dancers seemed particularly strong during the long involved song about the king–King Kong (he loved his woman).

ADF students in Bill T. Jones' Love Re-defined, in the FORCES OF DANCE program. Photo: ©Grant Halverson/ADF.

ADF students in Bill T. Jones’ Love Re-defined, in the FORCES OF DANCE program. Photo: ©Grant Halverson/ADF.

The finale of this intriguing season is a new work by Twyla Tharp, which had its world premiere July 26. The ADF commissioned Treefrog in Stonehenge, with its original score by David Kahne, to be set on ADF students, and it is staged here by Rika Okamoto and Alexander Brady, both former Tharp dancers. How wonderful is this? Not only does the ADF preserve old dances in new young bodies, they commission new artwork for new dancers. And  Treefrog in Stonehenge is not a minor work, but a large, increasingly complex multi-section work for 16 dancers, larded with references to and quotes from many dance styles and particular choreographers, in addition to Tharp’s own inimitable inventions. All of the very advanced students excelled at Tharp’s demanding athleticism, moving patterns and split-second timing at break-neck pace. The entire troupe was electric, sizzling with the joy of a difficult endeavor going very right, but Ben Ingel, a member of North Carolina Dance Theatre 2, was gasp-inducing in his high leaping turns. After “Helios,” it was impossible not to think of Icarus. Ingel was flying, burning like a Roman candle, but he landed as gently as a spark–no crashing to this burn. (I shook his hand afterward. It wasn’t even hot, but it did smell mightily of Tiger Balm.) What a wonderful close to the American Dance Festival’s 80th season of bringing better living through dance.

ADF students gave Twyla Tharp's Treefrog in Stonehenge its world premiere at the DPAC, 7-26-13. Photo: ©Grant Halverson/ADF.

ADF students gave Twyla Tharp’s Treefrog in Stonehenge its world premiere at the DPAC, 7-26-13. Photo: ©Grant Halverson/ADF.

The program repeats July 27 only, but it will be possible to see Ingel in Charlotte next season in NCDT II performances. Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan will appear in April, 2014, when Carolina Performing Arts will present Songs of the Wanderers in Chapel Hill.

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