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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 2 AUGUST 2016 — Founded by the choreographer, Lin Hwai-min in 1973, the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre was Taiwan’s first contemporary dance troupe, a troupe that owed much to Martha Graham’s technique.  Now, with up to 120 dancers and collaborators, its style is a fusion of traditional Chinese culture, modern dance and tai-chi as demonstrated in Rice, Lin Hwai-min’s latest work. The one hour, ten minute piece, conceived in 2013 for the 40th anniversary of the company, is an exploration of birth, life, and death, where the cycle of human life is played out against lush, ever-changing  background videos of rice fields.

The film sequences, by Chang Hao-jan, (Howell), are sumptuous, beginning with images of growing crops of rice waving in the breeze in water-logged fields. Against this tumultuous background, the dancers appear one by one, the women clad in simple, flowing dresses of olive green, brick, bronze, rust, clay, red and the darkest of purple.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in Rice
Choreography: Lin Hwai-min

Lin Hwai-min had taken his dancers to work in the fields alongside the local peasants in order to create authentic movements, and indeed, the women, with their strong, curved arm movements,  puffing and weighted down, with thumping feet and big, generous gestures, open the piece with great intensity. Their movements reflect their work and are evocative of the very land itself, their raised arms following the growing, changing, rippling scenes of the growing rice behind them. Beneath them, light is shooting across the stage, extending the stunning video filming across the floor as they sway to traditional Hakka music.

The audience catches its breath in expectancy as the men come on stage, brandishing long, flexible poles. A duo takes place against yet another stunning landscape, dominated by cloudy skies in the rice fields. Are they fishing rods, agricultural tools, or simply the slender branches of trees? Their dance is powerful, brutal even, evoking the martial arts, and the tone of the piece changes.

It changes even more with the onset of a rather gratuitous duo of two figures in flesh-coloured tights, low and earthbound, writhing on the floor copulating, more Caliban than Ariel.* Despite the stunning images behind and in front of them, and of the accompanying score, that of Maria Callas, in an extract from Norma, the couple, Huang Pei-Hua and Tsai Ming-Yuan, tangled and twisted up, presumably illustrating Pollen 11, arouse little emotion. Grace, lyricism, and fervor of any sort are absent, leaving the spectator totally uninvolved.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in Rice
Choreography: Lin Hwai-min

Passion and strong determination there was, however, in the scene where a woman in a long, red dress is set to give birth, but the sense of respite was short for along the way, the choreography itself lost its force and sense of immediacy. The seasons pass slowly, but so does the dance. One can admire the events on stage but they no longer sweep one away, not even when it is music by Mahler accompanying the men beating out the flames win front of spectacular images of the burning fields. It’s the end of a cycle and the dancers on stage are dying, yet the rice fields after harvesting are burnt to supply fertilizer for the new cycle, shown when a dancer comes on stage, fishing, to a background of towering mountains and great rushing waterfalls. It’s what the peasants do, go fishing when there’s no work to be done with the rice.

The work pleased because of its exceptional imagery and sense of immensity as well as the calm force of the dancers, but it all seemed a little heavy-handed and slow-moving, with unconvincing transitions between traditional and classical music. Nevertheless, it was very well-received by a cheering audience, and quite rightly so.

*Caliban and Ariel were Prospero’s two servants in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the former earthly and base, the latter, lightness and air.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Based in Paris,  Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.

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