Art imitates life when Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan arrives this weekend with its critically acclaimed production of Rice. Created in 2013 to celebrate the contemporary dance company’s 40th anniversary, the piece is making its Southern California premiere with three performances at the Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Founder and artistic director Lin Hwai-min took his dancers (22 on this tour) to the farming village of Chihshang in the East Rift Valley of Taiwan, where they joined the farmers in harvesting rice. From that experience emerged a powerful work that addresses environmental concerns. Rice also features video images and a soundtrack of Eastern folk songs, Western opera, and natural elements (wind, water, fire). “Cloud Gate dancers transform the life cycle of rice into delicate, mesmerizing movements onstage,” says Lin. Their inspiration and their unique vantage point—stooped in the fields—make for a compelling story. We asked him to tell us more.
Welcome! It’s been 13 years since Cloud Gate performed in L.A. Tell us about working in the rice fields.
It was a backbreaking experience. With their feet sinking into the soft soil, dancers bent their waists, harvested the crops with their own hands, and felt the wind sweeping past their face and sweat streaming down from their cheeks. It was a precious experience that made you feel you are a part of nature. Your senses were open. This is very different from the sense about the body one feels in the studio. The harvesting brought a ritualistic sense into the work.
Why did you choose this example—the life cycle of rice cultivation—for a production about protecting the Earth?
Rice is the staple crop in Asia. It is considered holy in many cultures. When I was growing up in a village, rice fields were a familiar sight in my daily life. As kids, we were told to eat up every grain of rice in our bowls. And I would get punished if I played with the rice grains being dried in the courtyard. But honestly, I had never intended to use rice as a topic for choreography—not until after my visit to Chihshang. The rolling waves of rice across acres of paddies hold a secret about the village. Years ago the Taiwan power company planned to install electricity poles in the rice field of Chihshang. The farmers protested with a series of persistent sit-ins and succeeded in having the wires buried underneath the field, thus preserving the beauty of their landscape.
I wanted to share those beautiful images of the land with the Cloud Gate audience. I commissioned a cinematographer to spend two years, off and on, on location, capturing the cultivation of rice: flooding, sprouting, harvesting, and burning. Rice paddies are very different from wheat fields, which throughout remain dry, while rice paddies are watery. The video images—of clouds reflected in the water, rice swaying in the wind, and fire ravaging the fields—have become the essential visual elements of the production. Dancers are immersed in the landscape projected on the backdrop and the stage, enacting a human drama parallel to the life cycle of rice. Awed by the immense waves of grain rolling across expansive fields of rice, and inspired by the environmentally conscious farmers, I decided to create the work.
As for the choreography, what kind of movements and imagery can we expect to see from the dancers?
Cloud Gate dancers are trained in disciplines from the East and the West. We have classes like meditation, qigong, and internal martial arts, but also ballet and contemporary dance. Through different philosophies of moving, they acquire very sensitive bodies. Cloud Gate dancers are, so to speak, “multilingual,” and so is Rice. Just as the rice crops change forms over four seasons, our dancers also transform their bodies, in duets and in groups, to incarnate the life cycle of human beings. Rattan sticks are the only props we use onstage, and we use them in multifunctional ways. They are field implements when being used in farming but turn into weapons in battles against a ravaged land ablaze by fire.
Tickets for Rice available now at The Music Center