REVIEW: Cloud Gate’s ‘Songs of the Wanderers’ carries audience along on journey

Apr. 03, 2014 @ 04:48 PM

Rice isn't just for eating anymore thanks to Cloud Gate Dance Theatre performers and choreographer/founder Lin Hwai-min. Instead, 31/2 tons of rice creates the landscape of a journey in Lin's "Songs of the Wanderers."
On Wednesday, judging from the fact that the majority of a packed Memorial Hall audience remained still and quiet throughout the 90-minute work, this trip takes the audience right along with these travelers..
Sounds of falling rice, of dancers' bodies landing on this grain and the swish as performers scoop it up and toss it, provide a natural score. Folk songs by the Ensemble Rustavi of Georgia support the sense of an epic journey as human beings, over the ages, search for a reason for living beyond mere existence.
Rituals pervade this journey to enlightenment. Performers use short tree branches with sprays of foliage to beat their bodies as though to purify themselves. One man dives into a pile of rice and splashes around in it to cleanse himself -- a baptism of sorts. Performers carry bowls of fire. At another point, they spin in place, an ancient ritual practiced by some cultures, including Sufi dervishes, as a way to connect with the divine. Even the small bells at the top of performers' staffs evoke the temple's call to prayer.
The monk figure personifies meditation and serves as a model of stillnss, a place to rest the eyes from all the action taking place elsewhere onstage. He stands to one side and at the front of the stage throughout the performance except for a few slight, almost imperceptible shifts -- forward when streams of rice hit him directly on his head -- and backward when it glances off his back. Otherwise, the rice falls between his body and his hands in prayer and causes his robe to billow.
This work draws one in, judging from my own response and the overall attentiveness of the audience. It's as though you lose track of time and feel surprised when the performance ends because it seems like a blink of the eye instead of the fact that 90 minutes has passed. It's as though I've been in a meditative state where I experience a feeling of calm and peace rare in this busy world.
There's also a section that elicits a response akin to enlightenment. This occurs when the lights come up onstage, the air fills with curtains of golden grain and performers exuberantly scoop up rice and fling it into wide arcs. It's as though a switch has been flipped on causing a feeling of release, a surge of euphoria, an awakening.
After a well-deserved standing ovation, the cast exits and a man enters with an extremely long-handled rake. Still under the spell of this work, the audience sits back down to witness his slow, sure sweeps thought deep drifts of rice that cover the stage. Over time -- perhaps as much as 10 minutes -- he creates a large, furrowed "wheel" of rice. Order is restored.