'Don't give up your dream' Cloud Gate's Lin Hwai-min on his internationally successful dance journey

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan are a critically-acclaimed modern dance group who have toured the world with their jaw-dropping shows. Cloud Gate are so internationally important to the world of dance that the Taiwanese government named the street of their offices Cloud Gate Lane and proclaimed August 21 2003 as "Cloud Gate Day". Here Mandy News has the absolute pleasure of chatting with the dance company's founder Lin Hwai-min about how he made his dance dreams come true, ahead of Cloud Gate's UK premiere of new show Formosa at Sadler's Wells.

9th April 2018
/ By James Collins

Cloud Gate interview CLOUDGATE

Lin Hwai-min, please introduce yourself to us and tell us a little bit about how you became involved into the arts.
I am the founder and artistic director of the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. I started as a writer. Although I loved dancing since I was five and a half, I didn’t start regular training until I was 23, when I was working on my MFA degree at the Writer’s Worksop, University of Iowa, US. I was there because I already had two books published. One of them is still on sale in bookstores. That was published in 1969.

I came back to Taiwan in 1972 and a dance department asked me to teach modern dance. I went to take a look and the students were enthusiastic. I started teaching and they wanted to perform. Being a kid growing up in the '60s, I thought we could make a difference in society. Since there was no professional dance company, I thought it would be nice, so I started Cloud Gate in 1973 without any background in professional dance, let alone running a company. I was a layman and I thought I could hand it over to the dancers two years later. This year we are celebrating the 45th anniversary.

This is the first professional dance company in Taiwan. It turned out to be the first contemporary dance company in all Chinese-speaking communities throughout the world. I set up the company so that dancers could have a platform to perform on. Also, I love to perform for a grassroots audience; students on campus. I’m very happy to report that we are still doing it. Every summer we have done outdoor performances for the past 24 years. For each performance, a minimum of 30,000 people will show up.

Where do those performances take place?
In different cities of Taiwan. We do three or four cities every year. In the Plaza, in the Athletic fields. Outdoors, basically. We are very fortunate that we have been doing that since the '80s.

Also, there is a company, Cloud Gate 2, which travels into the communities and make rain dance. They really perform and communicate with the people in the community. I’m very happy about that.

It must be very important for you to be able to do that with the community.
When we set out to have a company, that was the idea.

Could you tell us a little bit about the team that you have involved? Is it the same team that you had at the beginning?
The oldest dancer we have is from 1983. She is our associate artistic director. We also have dancers of more than 20 years. The turnover is very low in the company.

How do you feel your background in writing stories influences Cloud Gate and the way you involve storytelling in the dance performances?
Because of my background in writing, in the first 10 years it tended to be narrative adaptations from classic literature, poems… But all of the way through, I knew that was not right. Dance is not to tell a story but to present movements. It took me about 20 years to erase the words from my head. Then, I had more pure things.

For instance, Moon Water and the Cursive Trilogy have no storytelling, no role-playing. But in recent years, with Formosa, lots of words are involved. Literature played a major part in my life. I use a lot of words in Formosa. That doesn’t mean they are telling a story or even telling an idea through words, but they are part of it, heavily.

Formosa is the newest production that you have, and you’re bringing that over to the UK to Sadler’s Wells in May. Could you tell us a little bit more about the show, where it comes from and what it’s about?
I thought I would like to do something about the island to start with. I collected excerpts from the famous Pohoi. They wrote about land, about its laws and its people. I had those things in hand but I didn’t know what to do with it.

I thought it would be nice to have subtitles in the beginning. We have a very rich projection. I used the typefaces of Chinese characters, not calligraphy. That’s at the very beginning, in the first three to five minutes. There is also reading of the poems. They play a role. In the very beginning, the words carry the title of what is said. But very soon, about five minutes later, those characters find a life of their own. From there on, the characters have nothing to do with the reading of the poems. In the end, the words became the sole and only material for the production design.

That creates a different landscape for the background and stage floor. The projections move, like mountains. At one point, characters gathered together become a huge, heavy block and they drop like rain, until the whole stage is black. Taiwan is hounded by earthquakes and typhoons.

After that, we’ve got a starry, night sky with hundreds of stars, and each star is made of tiny little characters. Those characters grow into bigger characters, and they start breaking into smaller parts, until the whole sky looks like when you look out from a spaceship to watch broken characters drifting through the sky.

Those characters break until they become single strokes, or single lines, body parts of the characters flying around. For the first time, at the end, we have colour. It’s all black and white until the last three minutes. Then we’ve got the blue sea with white waves raging and washing off all those incomplete characters until it’s just ocean. The dancers exit, and the stage and background become black, emptiness, white. That white space is what we started with in the very beginning. The ground and the floor.

That’s how the characters evolve. They play a major role and because nowadays, words are so overused. In the same office, people don't walk over to talk, people send texts. That’s what captured my imagination. I figured that words communicate, words document, words carry the record of history, but words can be blurred through time. History can be erased. Memories can be found. That’s the idea behind production design with characters.

On stage, dancers start innocently and they play around, then gradually the mood changes, people become hostile to each other and they fight. There is single fighting. One to one, group to group. In the chaos of their fighting, the blocks of words descend like rain.

The world premiere was attended by visitors from the UK, from Germany, and the US. I like what they said at this opening, about Brexit. They came from London and they said, "This is Brexit." Other people, agents and critics from New York said, ‘That’s what happened to the US after Trump entered the White House.’ Some people will relate that to what’s going on in Lebanon. The divide, the fight, it’s in our time. Our time is about fighting. That’s what happens. It’s universal.

Cloud Gate is not just about the dance, it’s also about the production effects, the use of characters, the use of rice in the past– a continuous stream of rice falling onto the stage… The production value is always very high with Cloud Gate. How do you approach doing the visual effects side for each production?
Here is the background. Cloud Gate is the first professional dance company that links with the theatre scene in Taiwan. At the time, we didn’t have a big venue, we didn’t even have the technical facilities. Of course, there were no designers, no technicians. We started from zero.

We did everything to contribute. We tried technical guide books. We invited people to come give workshops. We started our theatre workshop to train technicians and designers. We bought equipment. Nowadays, in many major venues, the important people that work in those technical departments are from Cloud Gate theatre workshops.

What I’m trying to say is we tried to do things to challenge ourselves. These designers, these technical people wanted to be challenged. So we started from very simple things. It became kind of a tradition. That became kind of a style.

And now you have this fantastic theatre of your own, the Cloud Gate theatre. Could you tell us about this beautiful building and how you created this home to such fantastic performances in Taiwan?
We moved around in the city, but the ceiling was low and there were pillars and all that. We moved to the outskirts. The landlord viewed a warehouse with a tin roof that was very cold in the winter and very hot in the summer. We stayed there for 16 years and we loved the place. In 2008, it burned. It was destroyed in a blaze. All of a sudden, the society was shocked to discover that it was illegally built.

Before I knew anything, donations started to come and our board decided to build our own place. The magistrate of the county came to visit and bound us to stay. We love the one we have now. There are more than four thousand individuals and corporations that gave us their support, and the government. We have signed a lease with the government for 40 years, with an optional 10 years.

We still have to pay rent to the land. We have to do everything on our own. For the first time, we have a home and everybody under the same roof. While we were dancing in the warehouse, the office was in the city. Now we have a wonderful theatre that seats 450. It is duly equipped, very professional. Our stage is as good as Sadler’s Wells, with a lot of space.

It became a park, because it’s surrounded by a golf course that will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year. On the other side is a fort, built in 1886. It’s full of historical significance. Both places are old, so they are truly very tall, large, green. Therefore I went out to buy 300 grown trees in three days. I’m not a shopping person at all but I had a kick out of it. It’s beautiful, it’s very surreal. The beauty of it is designed to our needs. We love the place. It’s not an architect-designed theatre. We really took a long time to discuss what we need.

About 80% of the people walking into our studio, and even our theatre, are right next to a window and the green from outside just pours in. It’s very beautiful. Even the green room is very green in that sense. We can see the ocean and mountains from our space.

And this is in the outskirts of Taipei?
About 14 minutes by tube from downtown Taipei. It’s also a very popular sightseeing spot. That area is right next to the ocean.

Now that you have this fantastic space, how long would you say it takes to plan and rehearse a Cloud Gate production before it is ready for the public to see?
About three or four months. Normally, we can do the try-out in the theatre before moving out to the city. Our place is also very close to the airport, to go out.

How do you feel the responses in your home country differentiate from the way you are received in England, in Europe, in America?
Actually, they know about it. Every day, if I go out into the street, they say hello to me. When the house was destroyed by fire, they came up to encourage me. Cloud Gate is a household name. My story and Cloud Gate’s story were in a text book for elementary school, junior high and high school in English.

We always carry a healthy dialogue with the society, so it’s only natural. Even the cab drivers know that we are going to perform in London, for instance. They discussed it with me. Then, it’s those outdoor performances that really bring them to us. Of course, they are very proud that Cloud Gate is performing everywhere. This year, we are going to perform in 10 countries. 

A lot of performances is key. We spend about 150 days a year out of the country. Last year, we spent our Chinese new year in Austin, Texas. This year, we had our Chinese new year in Mexico City. We are gypsies.

How is it dealing with the arts and theatre in Taiwan historically over the changes in how the country’s political system works, from the KMT to the DPP? Has that changed the way you work at all?
I don’t feel much about that. But the martial law was abolished. It’s a 40-year-old martial law and it was abolished in 1987. It’s a wonderful feeling. It’s really a great challenge. All of a sudden there is no war and you see the blue sky with white clouds. You confront the question now: how far your imagination can stretch.

That’s opening up Taiwan – very free. We have a female president, nowadays. We have a direct connection. The theatre is booming. If you perform a naked dance, it doesn’t even get mentioned in the press because that's something we take for granted.

Last year, our high court said gay marriage should be legalised, and asked our parliament to write out laws and change things. The high court gave the government two years to work this paper out. If they fail to deliver, then two years later, that means next year, gay marriage will automatically be in effect. 

That’s what Taiwan is about. Everybody can say what they want to say. On the internet and in parliament, they fight like cats.

What advice do you have for up-and-coming dancers or up-and-coming people in the arts industries?
Don’t give up your dream, because that’s the only thing you can have. Nobody can take it away from you unless you give it up. Of course, in the process, you learn, you review, you change, you improve. Hardship is a part of life. Everyone in our society has their own share of joy and hardship. Just don’t give up.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan comes to Sadler's Wells with the UK Premiere of Formosa from May 9-12.