Sharing a ‘sense of peace’ in dance theater performance

Mar. 31, 2014 @ 06:07 PM

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan may be known for beauty, simplicity and the meditative quality of its performances. But when “Songs of the Wanderers” is on the program, they don’t travel light.

The company will perform this 1994 work by founder/artistic director Lin Hwai-min on Wednesday at UNC’s Memorial Hall.

For flights from Taipei, the company’s home base, and along the tour route, their baggage check includes three and a half tons of rice. This grain plays an integral part in this production. It covers the stage and rains down on a “monk” throughout this 90-minute work.

This season marks the 20th year that Wong Rong-yu, an actor with his own theater company in Taiwan, has been playing the monk, Lee Ching-chun, the company’s associate artistic director, said in a telephone interview from Montreal, Canada, where the troupe performed before coming to Chapel Hill.

At first, Lin had wanted to see how long the actor could stand still under the constant stream of rice dropped from a height of seven feet, Lee Ching-chun said. “It hurts,” she added. It still does but only when the actor leans slightly forward and the rice hits him directly on his shaved head, Lee added. When this happens, Wong has learned to stop thinking about the pain by focusing on his breath and stillness, she said.

“Basically, he’s in a meditative state. At 4 p.m. before a performance, he is already meditating,” she said.

Meditation and Qi Gong, an ancient form of breathing exercise, are part of the company’s training and preparation for performances, Lee said. Qi Gong aligns breath, movement and awareness. “We use the breathing to channel the body and bring the body to a different frame of mind,” she said.

From a performer’s perspective, she said, Cloud Gate performances are“very much a spiritual experience.”

She should know. Since joining the company in 1983, she has performed many leading roles, including a solo in “Songs of the Wanderers.”  Lee performed the role last year but is not in the current show.

This role had been inspired, in part, by the prostitute character in Hermann Hesse’s novel, “Siddhartha,” Lee said. The novel had been a “springboard” for Lin’s “Songs of the Wanderers.” In the novel, a man leaves his life of privilege and takes to the road in search of enlightenment.

Lin did not say much to Lee about her role but he did give her some hints. “She’s voluptuous, passionate,” Lee said. Her movements become a ritual of cleansing – “to wash away the guilt. It’s a holy experience,” she said.

Lin had performers read Hesse’s novel. And, over time, he shared another influence of his “Songs of the Wanderers” -- his journey in the summer of 1994 to the village of Bodhgaya in northern India.  There, he sat on the banks of the Neranjra River and under the bodhi tree where Buddha had found enlightenment.

“Sometimes, I feel the work is a gift from Buddha,” Lin said in 2002 when his company made its American Dance Festival debut with “Songs of the Wanderers.”

“I’m just a medium. It came very easily … I’m so happy I can share that sense of peace I found in Bodhgaya,” Lee said at that time.

The subject of peace came up again in an interview with Lin last summer when he received the Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement. He was the first Asian to receive the award created in 1981. He founded Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in 1973 as the first modern dance company in a Chinese-speaking community.

Asked about the role of beauty in his work, he replied, “At a time like this, chaotic and depressing, beauty can be a weapon to go against the ugliness. I hope, for two hours, I can give the audience a sense of peace.’

Lin’s company members also benefit from the spirit in which he creates his work and lives his life. “We tend to stay a long time,” Lee said. She’s been in the company for 30 years and counting.

“He does everything with a full heart,” she said. “He cares about human beings. Therefore, we find it meaningful to work with him.”