The Taiwanese dance company paying homage to rice

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre returns with a celebration of the greatest grain

As an art form, choreography demands a panoramic knowledge base; even presenting a simple work means understanding at least stagecraft, music and, well, dance. The more intellectual choreographers glean their inspiration from fine arts, literature, politics, history, philosophy, design and, as Taiwan’s Cloud Gate Dance Theatre shows with Rice, nature. But founder and artistic director Lin Hwai-min has astounding depth; in fact, he began dancing only after he had published two critically acclaimed books and was doing a Master’s in writing. 'Dance was my childhood passion, but I had not taken regular classes,' he recalls. 'But growing up in the ’60s, I thought I could contribute to society, and Taiwanese people loved dancing.'

At age 26, he founded Cloud Gate, the first professional dance company in the Chinese communities; forty-five years later it remains Asia’s flagship ensemble. This is partly because of its comprehensive training: ballet, modern dance, martial arts, qi gong, meditation, and calligraphy – and in the case of Rice, farming. The piece is based on Chihshang, in the East Rift Valley of Taiwan, a one-time granary for emperors turned toxic by chemical fertiliser overuse, and later resurrected. '[I saw] clouds hovering over ten acres of waves of rice,' says Lin. 'I felt I was in paradise and dreamt of sharing the beauty of the landscape with my audience.'

Today, locals have repaired the land through a vigorous organic farming programme. 'An old farmer told me that he was very busy because they were doing "scientific farming" – there were forms to fill in every day, material to read, and seminars to attend,' Lin says, adding that the farmers even staged sit-ins to protest an electric company erecting poles in their fields. '[They said] their rice needed good rest in the evenings.' The farmers won.

Lin was deeply moved by their efforts and wanted to create a work to honour them – but first came the research, where the entire company joined the Chihshang harvest. 'It was back-breaking labour,' he recalls. 'Several ladies laughed at our clumsiness and told each other these kids from Taipei were doing everything wrong. But we treasured the experience that helped us feel emotionally involved in making and performing the dance,' he says. 'We treasured that tranquil feeling of sensing the breeze drying the sweat on our bodies.'

In his 1994 Songs of the Wanderers, Lin poured three-and-a-half tonnes of dyed-gold rice over his dancers to a stunning soundtrack of Georgian folk songs. This time actual rice appears in an evocative video backdrop that videographer Howell Chang Hao-jan spent two years filming on site. Rice’s eight sections represent the cycles of crop development: Soil, Wind, Pollen I, Pollen II, Sunlight, Grain, Fire and Water. Farmers burn the field after the harvest, flood the land, plant the seedlings, hope for cross-pollination, harvest the crops and begin again. And some moments stand out. The pollination duet is stunning and surprisingly erotic, while the supremely athletic fire number has men dancing with bamboo sticks, which makes for a striking silhouette against the screen. The wind sequence is poetry in motion. The soundtrack pits Hakka folk songs that still echo across today’s rice paddies against Maria Callas arias and random classical highlights, which can be jarring. But by all accounts, while Rice certainly meets Cloud Gate’s oft-criticised slick, stylised standards, the overall effect is hard to forget.