Rice – Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (Auckland Arts Festival)

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Rice from Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan is one of those rare offerings. Created by the revered Lin Hwai-min, founder of Taiwan’s Cloud Gate Dance Theatre and winner of the 2013 American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement,  Rice celebrates the life cycle of a rice paddy in the home of ‘Emperor’s Rice’ in the East Rift Valley of Taiwan. This valley has eschewed the despoiling by chemical fertiliser and has returned to organic farming – with growing demand from EU countries for the ‘happy’ rice now produced there.

Mr Lin Hwai-min was so awed by the beauty of the fertile waving oceans of green rice plants, swaying pre-harvest, that he took the dancers to the valley so they could experience hand- harvesting.  Through this hard physical labouring, each dancer came to know the essence of the energies of earth and sun and wind and water and fire which cycle annually, to create the miracle of rice. They also came to understand the larger cycles of death, rebirth, devastation and resurrection, and from there, the cycles of human life. As the Associate Artistic Director, Lee Ching-Chun said to me when I talked to her for 13th Floor just before the three- show Auckland season began (Click here to watch the interview), “This is a story about Life.”

Cloud Gate is adored in Taiwan as a national treasure, a taonga as we say in Aoteoroa.

I can understand why, after witnessing the exquisite choreography, the delicate costuming with subtle and very beautiful shades of nature’s hues (a special note of appreciation here to Li-Ting Huang for Costume Design- Li-Ting studied Architecture at University College London and then Art and Design at London’s Chelsea College), the music ranging from folk music in Hakka, the oldest of the Chinese dialects still extant, to drum, to classical from Norma by Bellini, or Saint-Saens, or Strauss and with the unmistakable longing of the vocals of Maria Callas, and last but most importantly, the refined, disciplined, martial-arts-and meditative movements of the dancers. They are taonga indeed. They float and flow and turn and coil and glide and leap and fight and breathe in a unison that looks effortless and yet belies the countless hours of work and practice that create such crafted dance, and footwork, and co-ordination.

One thing I excluded from the soundscape was their use of recorded material quite literally from the field, to complement the music. The opening number, Soil, begins with a darkened stage and a video image backdrop of melting snow on a small patch of earth. Yet it’s the sound of the wind that still stays with me. A haunting bleak sound which carries some smell of life to the frozen land. To underscore the idea of life shaking itself back in to being, from winter’s harsh cold, a lone dancer walks with slow, silky steps across the back of the stage with a long stick of bamboo in one hand which he shakes to give the effect of quivering, halting life beginning its preparation for Spring.

The video picks up pace as we see images of snow melts and hear running water sounds, and a woman in an earthy brown dress comes on. She stops with bent knees and raises both ankles before banging them down heavily- and begins to thud out a heart -rhythm beat – slow, steady, indefatigable, as one by one, other female dancers join her and time their own thunderous footfalls to align with hers. All of this against a backdrop of steady, controlled, noisey breath. And contrasting, there is also a great Stillness and focus in the midst of the noise and rhythm. The dances seem to meld into a oneness. Their deep gut breaths remind me to go within and breathe with similar pulsing life force. I feel grateful.

A solo male voice starts singing in Hakka, and the video imagery is now of running water. We see small shoots starting to head to the surface after a long cold spell. The dancers echo the new life in their staccato movements mixed with fluidity, and their body shapes echo the outward circular motion that lies at the heart of the Qi Gong movement -training. Their movements are often low to the ground and remind me of the earthy feeling of watching new life come through in Spring. The pace quickens. The fusion of Asian disciplines of movement with Western dance styles and leaps, is exquisite to witness.

I loved the touches of Tai Chi – described as ‘Internal Martial Arts’ in the programme – and the control and precision of the slowed-down moves in places. And I loved the changing video tapestry projected in different sizes from full screen to quarter screen or less, as constantly evolving as the dance itself. The programme describes how a cinematographer, Howell Hao-jan Chang, spent two years on location, capturing the flooding -sprouting-harvesting of rice and then the burning of the field. Thus the whole cycle is captured on film and accompanies the dancers on their turning – life – cycles of dance, with each section succinctly entitled: Soil – Wind – Pollen – Sunlight – Grain – Fire – Water to illustrate the stages through which the rice itself passes each year.

The Wind piece I especially loved for the complexity of the choreography.  I was lost in the brilliance of Mr Lin’s creativity. How did he come up with such original and intriguing ways to capture the swirling, wild, untameable movement of wind through dancers in ever-changing groupings?  I followed them as they articulated their bodies in ways that only hours of martial arts disciplines could make possible. Each dancer becomes a mesmerising moving, swirling, leaping, bending embodiment of the intangible beauty of wind across the swaying green stems of rice we see in the footage behind them.

I particularly enjoyed the sudden still patches in the midst of the frenetic movement showing the pulsating life-force of the growing rice. The fluid bodies took sudden pause, and became sculptural.  The deep inner stillness at the heart of all Life, is still there behind the busy growth and pollination. The soundscape is stunning.

And then there are suddenly just two figures on stage. Pollen 11 is the title. The scene encapsulates the birth of life. The pollination of the plant. But it’s also a representation of the coming together of two human lives to create a third. This rendition portrays the truly sacred that can be at the heart of the act of creation in any living plant or being. It is sublime. Two dancers, male and female, melting in to one in almost- silhouette, on a dusky stage against a glowing fecund green light reflected off the rice plants in the video. It is without any doubt, one of the most beautiful pas de deux that I have ever seen. I would put it up there with Fonteyn and Nureyev in the film version of Romeo and Juliet. It is transcendent. Total connection. And the Maria Callas voice which hangs enigmatically over the theatre, only adds to the whole sensuous scene.

There were innumerable fine moments in the scenes which followed: the martial arts with sticks, the further moments of no music and stillness, the lone figure on the stage, the birthing of new life,  the mesmeric drum beats,  the twirling long sticks embodying fire taking hold, the freneticism as fires battle and burst and meet and explode – breathtaking dancing.

Then the contrasting ending, as we see the videos of the once-green paddies that are now a blackened shadow of their former glorious abundance. The lone dancer who creeps out to the singing of La Callas, with her recorded voice capturing such exquisite, tragic beauty. Mother Earth has been burnt yet still she keeps going with her promise of more to give. More dancers hesitantly enter. Their slow arching in the aching choreography that represents the pain and suffering and indomitable spirit of the land – and of woman. And finally, after many attempts, one of them manages to stand tall, using one of the sticks. Wounded but unbowed. We see Life rising again. This single powerful figure. We see the video depiction of Water flowing over the land . The curtain falls.

I will remember the visual beauty, the powerful choreography,  the perfection of the dancers, for long after that curtain came down.  I carry those images in me.

A special gift from this Auckland Arts Festival 2017. Thank you Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Please come again to New Zealand so next time,  more of us can sit in wonder at the beauty you create. And thank you Mr Lin Hwai-min, for your gift to the world of such vision and unique work.

Liz Gunn