Dance: Peacefulness comes at a price

Montreal Gazette
VICTOR SWOBODA
14 March 2014

Dance: Peacefulness comes at a price

Dancers sift through three tonnes of rice in Songs of the Wanderers, much like each of us sifts through the changing patterns that make up our own lives. (Photo: Yu Hui-hung)

MONTREAL — Any Montreal appearance by the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre is a noteworthy event. Company founder Lin Hwai-min is in the highest rank of world choreographers, and his works seen here in the past several years — Moon Water and Wild Cursive — were transcendental visions of great visual and emotional power. Thanks again to the Danse Danse series, Cloud Gate invites audiences to go on another voyage of personal discovery at Place des Arts this month, in a work appropriately titled Songs of the Wanderers.

As interpreted by the 24 dancers, the wanderers of the title symbolize humanity throughout history, which includes you and me. Our passage in time and space is dramatized by a visual device that is simple yet extraordinarily powerful. It involves rice — three tonnes of it — cascading onto the stage like sand falling inside some fantastic hourglass. Dancers dressed in monk-like robes move about this universe, sifting through the rice as each of us sifts through the changing patterns that make up our own lives.

One figure does not move, however, during the entire 70-minute show — the symbol, perhaps, of all the humanity that came before our own arrival in the world and will come after we’re gone. The rice falls steadily on this figure, whose role has been interpreted by the same dancer, Wang Rong-yu, since the work’s première 20 years ago.

“He’s amazing,” said Lin, 67, in a phone interview from London, where his company performed at Sadler’s Wells recently. “We apply a coating on his head so it’s not so painful, and his hands and shoulders are bandaged with flesh-coloured bandages. (In 20 years) he only fell once, because the rice buried his robe and it was so tight that he was off balance. He picked himself up in one second. A lot of times, people wait outside to see him and hug him and start crying.”

Songs of the Wanderers was created four years before Moon Water, but the works are spiritually linked. In different ways, both illustrate a vision of harmony and peace that comes about only as a result of concentrated searching.

Lin was on a search of his own when he found the inspiration that led to Songs of the Wanderers. In 1994 he travelled to Bodh Gaya, the place in India where it’s believed that in the fifth century BC, Buddha meditated under a tree and developed the philosophy that bears his name.

“Before I went to Bodh Gaya, I thought Buddha was a god. And there he was, like us, a human being. I was extremely moved with this realization. I came to it under the Buddha’s tree. I think the energy of the tree and the place settle into my meditation. I’m a very restless person; (it’s) hard to sit down and meditate.”

Back home, with a sense of peacefulness, Lin created Songs of the Wanderers with the ease of “water flowing out.” But before he began his choreographic work, he put his dancers through a special regimen.

“I had them meditate three hours a day. They hated me! But I was very persistent. Some of the boys fell asleep in the studio! Then I think they found that sense of concentration without effort, and breathing. I asked them to improvise when they came out of the state of meditation. They used that energy to move their bodies.”

That special effortless way of moving — dancers shaping the air as though they were part of the air itself — was one of the glories of Moon Water. For that piece, Lin had the dancers practise the slow, meditative gestures of the qigong school of movement for hours. Again, some dancers were irate until they finally discovered the beauty in unhurried gestures.

The dancers are accompanied by a recording of songs about famine and feasting performed by the Rustavi choir of Georgia, the former Soviet republic on the Black Sea. When Lin first heard the songs in New York on a friend’s old long-playing record, he immediately wanted to use them as accompaniment. But the record was riddled with pops and clicks. He scoured New York unsuccessfully for another copy. At last, he thought to call a Russian bookstore.

“An old lady said they used to carry it and went to check. She found the last copy.”

Nowadays at many performances, the Rustavi choir accompanies the dancers live. In November, Cloud Gate and Rustavi will perform together for the first time in Georgia in what promises to be a memorable performance. Montreal, though, gets the recording.

Some of the most interesting moments in Songs of the Wanderers might well be those when the choir is not singing at all.

“When there’s no music, the dancers walk through the rice and you hear the rustling. The rustling of the rice falling on the head of the monk is very peaceful to me.”

That rice! Lin thought creating the effect of falling tonnes of rice would be simple.

“It turned out to be a hell of a lot of work! You have to wash the rice, because something in it causes the body to itch. You have to dry and dye it to make the poetic golden rice. It can’t be pointed, otherwise it hurts the head and body of the monk.”

After the initial performances, the rice was stored.

“When we went to reuse it, the rice had all sprouted!”

To prevent unwanted growth, subsequent rice batches were sterilized. For European performances, the rice was stored in Frankfurt and shipped out. North American performances have rice brought in by ship and then trucked to the cities on tour, starting with Portland and Chicago.

In a startling confession, Lin admitted he hates to see his works on stage, though he attends performances so that he can give notes to the dancers the next day.

“But Songs of the Wanderers is the only one I don’t mind sitting and watching. When I’m gone, if there’s any work I would love to be preserved and revived, it would be Songs. It’s a gift from the Buddha and conveys a sense of peacefulness. I think in our time, we need that.”

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan performs Songs of the Wanderers, March 27 to 29 at 8 p.m. at Théâtre Maisonneuve of Place des Arts. Tickets cost $34 to $63. Call 514-842-2112 or visit pda.qc.ca.

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