“It was a dream of mine for many years to present the very best Asian dancers such as Cloud Gate for our audience and for dancers in the Pioneer Valley.”
By Merli V Guerra
There are times when particularly exceptional dance companies and works find their way to Massachusetts from overseas. On September 23rd, UMass Amherst’s Fine Arts Center welcomes the acclaimed Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan to its stage for a full-length production of RICE — a work rife with cultural, historical, and environmental significance. [Cloud Gate Dance Theatre will perform at 7:30 p.m. Audience members are invited to stay for a post-performance talk with Artistic Director Lin Hwai-min.]
Cloud Gate is a highly successful company that has created a dynamic new movement genre of its own: the troupe mixes and matches contemporary dance, martial arts, meditation, and Taiwanese dance. “Cloud Gate movement stands apart,” agrees Ranjanaa Devi (founding director of the Asian Arts & Culture Program, one of two performing arts divisions at the Fine Arts Center).“It is drawn from the flowing articulation of Tai Chi, the extreme extensions of ballet, foot, and arm articulation of the Graham style. These are all blended with martial arts. The vocabulary of movement is rich and diverse, as is the philosophy behind the work. Drawing on centuries of tradition of Chinese/ Buddhist art, poetry, and Asian ideals, [Cloud Gate director Lin Hwai-min] creates works like Songs of Wanderers and Moon Water. Using a variety of musical styles from classical Western to Asian, Lin draws on soundscapes that include vast reservoirs of Eastern and Western ideas and themes to produce work that is at once unique and exceptional.”
It was Devi, in fact, who brought about the upcoming appearance of Lin’s work on UMass Amherst’s campus. A professor of dance, herself, both at UMass and the Five College Dance Department as a whole, Devi was invited to create the Asian Arts & Culture Program back in 1993. Under her direction, the program has expanded over its 22 years, bringing many of the strongest Asian performing arts companies to Amherst, at the same time exposing the Pioneer Valley community at large to Asian arts through performances, lectures, screenings, and master classes.
“It was a dream of mine for many years to present the very best Asian dancers such as Cloud Gate for our audience and for dancers in the Valley. It seems unbelievable that Cloud Gate accepted our invitation,” says Devi. “I am so honored to share with everyone that the company is presenting only two performances in this U.S. Tour. One is at [the Next Wave Festival at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) in New York City] and the other at the Fine Arts Center, UMass Amherst.”
For this tour, Lin is presenting his signature work RICE, which dramatizes mankind’s ongoing struggle for sustainability. The work is inspired by the history of Chihshang in the East Rift Valley of Taiwan, whose use of chemical fertilizers once caused vast damage to the region. In more recent years, Chihshang has regained its title as “Land of the Emperor’s Rice” through the painstaking work of earth-conscious, organic farming.
As Devi sees it, “Global warming, use of pesticides in growing food, and sustainability of earth resources are hot topics of concern now. RICE explores these issues. I hope the audience will first see the absolute dedication and training of these marvelous dancers and then look beyond to see how art can bring focus and attention to deeply disturbing issues of climate change, use of pesticides, and health that are effecting [the lives of] millions of people around the world.”
Of course, the environmental message is conveyed through the astonishing physical and pictorial beauty of Cloud Gate’s productions. Viewers often find themselves transported as its dancers expand their movements effortlessly across the stage with projected images turning backdrops into visions of windswept, foreign lands.
“There is such beauty in Mr. Lin’s choreography,” say Devi. “The dancer’s body moves like a Chinese calligraphy brush stroke — supple, fluid, and powerful. His thought process of movement is precise, clean and articulate. Watching the dancers one sees them move in exact precision and yet with grace that makes you feel that these bodies are capable of any and every movement. No boundaries or limitations exist.”
Merli V. Guerra is a professional dancer with a background in ballet, modern, and classical Indian dance in the Odissi style, and an award-winning interdisciplinary artist with talents in choreography, filmmaking, writing, and graphic design. She is co-founder and artistic director of Luminarium Dance Company, production manager of Art New England magazine in Boston, and selects The Arts Fuse’s weekly coming attractions for dance.