Renowned choreographer Lin Hwai-min talks to Edmund Lee as Cloud Gate Dance Theatre goes on tour for a revival of one of its most iconic works, Nine Songs.
To understand Lin Hwai-min’s unwavering fascination with rituals, you have to go back to the legendary choreographer’s childhood. Growing up in the small rural town of Xingang, Chiayi, and living within walking distance to the oldest Mazu temple in Taiwan, Lin, as a kid, was used to the sight of religious rituals from both his family’s practice and the countless parades and performances he witnessed at the variety of festivals taking place at the temple year in, year out. “Even the name of the company, Cloud Gate, refers to a ritual in the time of [the ancient Chinese emperor] Huangdi,” says the 65-year-old founder of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, the first contemporary dance company in the Chinese-speaking world.
The Cloud Gate repertoire Nine Songs (1993), which takes to the stage at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre this week, is a scrupulously choreographed spectacle of Asian rituals that fittingly gave the company its first international breakthrough back in the 1990s. “It was Cloud Gate’s largest work [at the time], a work of opera scale,” Lin remarks on the two-hour piece. “Nine Songs was also my very conscious step away from [the influence of] Western culture, dance and music. I started out as an outsider to dance choreography; [by the time I made this work] I had learned for 20 years and, finally, I knew how to do it.” He laughs after referring to his company’s now-fabled establishment in 1973. “Cloud Gate has been performing in Europe and America since the 1970s, although it wasn’t until Nine Songs that we were established in the first rank – and not as just another touring company from Asia.”
Initially inspired by an eponymous cycle of poems written by the renowned Chinese poet Qu Yuan from the Warring States Period, while further seduced by the ancient rituals that had once influenced Qu and made their ways into China’s theatrical tradition, Lin eventually found the perfect expression for his lifelong interest in rituals during a visit to Bali, where he was entranced by the falling flowers and the incessant religious ceremonies. In an attempt to signify the deities’ punishing indifference towards the suffering of humans, Lin’s version of Nine Songs would then take its music from the various Southeast Asian countries that he had travelled in.
“The work is like a journey across cultures and a diary of my own,” says Lin of his use of traditional music from Java, Tibet, India and Japan, which he found from his home collection of recordings, as well as music by the indigenous tribes of Taiwan, which he specifically made the trip to document. “It’s also a journey back and forth in time. There’s a modern traveller [character] in the work and its mission is to provide an alienation effect and to disrupt the whole thing – so that Nine Songs would not turn into something exotic, something that fits into [the concept of] orientalism. The work is interesting to watch but you can’t exactly indulge yourself in the entertainment only, because it’s provoking you at the same time.”
Then again, even for the least superstitious of observers, it’s no exaggeration to say that Lin seems to be merely following his destiny in the case of Nine Songs. In February 2008, a fire broke out at Cloud Gate’s rehearsal site, destroying most of the costumes and props of the work. As the choreographer announced in an emotional press conference afterwards, all the masks representing the gods were surprisingly found to be in good condition – even if all the wooden trunks carrying them had been blown open. “In a traditional sense, masks are supposed to be spiritual,” Lin tells us. “That discovery was a significant encouragement for us.” And so, following 2010’s revival of The Tale of the White Serpent (1975) and last year’s Portrait of the Families (1997), Nine Songs becomes the latest Cloud Gate repertoire to be given a new lease of life since the fire.
In some ways it is this miraculous development – and Nine Songs’s distinctly indignant response to the silence of gods – that makes the current re-run feel so much like a reconciliation between the mortals and their otherworldly onlookers. Or perhaps, one may say, the deities are merely acknowledging the limits to the artist’s once-boundless ambition. “I’m afraid. I don’t dare to do it,” Lin says when asked if he’ll ever create another work approaching the scale of the 1993 classic. “I don’t have the urge any more. When compared to my simpler works in pure dance recently, Nine Songs is almost too colourful and too rich – both visually and auditorily. It’s created by accumulation; there’re layers and layers of message in it. But now, I’ve probably seen everything that life has to offer. [It’s enough] for an old man like me.”
Nine Songs 九歌 is at Cultural Centre’s Grand Theatre, Aug 2-5. Tickets: 2734 9009; urbtix.hk.