the whole stage is breathing

jonathan marshall talks to cloud gate’s lin hwai-min

Cursive, Cloud Gate

Cursive, Cloud Gate

Cursive, Cloud Gate

TWO TERMS EMERGE WITH PARTICULAR PROMINENCE WHEN TALKING TO CHOREOGRAPHER-DIRECTOR LIN HWAI-MIN ABOUT HIS TRILOGY DEALING WITH CHINESE CALLIGRAPHY, CURSIVE, CURSIVE II AND WILD CURSIVE. THESE ARE “BREATH” AND “SPACE.” THE EXPANSION AND CONTRACTION OF THE BODY AND OF SPACE, OF VESSELS FILLED WITH ENERGY AND EMOTION AS THEY SWELL TO THE POWER OF PROPULSIVE RHYTHMS OR MEDITATIVE PAUSES—THESE ARE THE THEMES OF LIN’S THREE-PART WORK WITH TAIWAN’S CLOUD GATE DANCE THEATRE.

Cloud Gate has toured the Australian festival circuit several times (Adelaide 1998, the Olympics 2000, Melbourne 2003 and Brisbane 2006) and is returning in 2007 to present Cursive (Adelaide Festival Centre) and Wild Cursive (Perth International Arts Festival). Lin’s conceptualisation of the trilogy is broadly Expressionistic. Rather than “imitate the shape” of various calligraphic characters using “gestures and movements”, Lin’s approach is based on “the essential thing which the aesthetics of Chinese calligraphy and movement share.” This essential, expressive character is to be found in a particular sense of energy and how this energy is channelled and manipulated—as in calligraphy and the physical training method of Tai-Chi Dao-Yin.

Calligraphy and much of Chinese courtly aesthetics developed in conjunction with the religious and philosophic systems of Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, in which calligraphy and landscape painting were designed to complement and encourage a meditative state comparable to that of Tai-Chi itself. Where Lin speaks of energy, he is referring to the Chinese concept of chi, in which the exchange of force between objects, individuals, spaces, and regions of the body must be in a harmonious state of dynamic flux for true beauty and mastery to be realised. Painting, writing and dancing become, in a sense, a form of meditation. The most visible manifestation of chi within the body is breath. As a result, much of Tai-Chi and Lin’s choreography revolves around different forms of embodiment produced through inhalation, exhalation and sustained breath—including the dancers’ vocalisations for the final, freest work in the trilogy, Wild Cursive. Lin notes that this piece is “about calligraphy, but perhaps in the end, it is even more about breathing. The whole stage is breathing.”

This model of the universe in a state of dynamic flux also influenced Western aesthetics. John Cage developed his approach to chance and silence after consulting the Daoist I Ching (The Book of Changes), a text which both Merce Cunningham and Lin drew upon for their dance. Lin’s reference to “the stage breathing” also allies his style to associated trends such as Performance Art and Actionism. In all of these forms, art became increasingly associated with a sense of process—with a form of cosmic evolution or immaterial, temporal development which could only be fully manifest through durational activities—rather than with a more contained concept of art such as that represented in a completed painting.

In language reminiscent of the Happenings of 1960s New York, Lin explains that “The set of Wild Cursive is like an installation. There are 10 reams of white paper. They take turns being lowered in or taken out.” Ink-dispensers are located above each sheet so that “the audience sees how the ink travels down the paper. It took almost 10 months to develop, because with ordinary rice-paper, with gravity, ink will take only 30 seconds to travel through 10 metres of paper. We had to create a special kind of paper which makes it harder for the water and ink to travel, so that it would produce these different kinds of shading. We also use different mixtures of water to make it come out light or black.” Just as the dancers’ sinuous, abstract movements create a dynamic interaction between the empty spaces on stage and those which the bodies occupy, so the falling ink produces a complicated interplay of positive and negative space. It is in this sense that “the whole stage is breathing.”

Lin notes that “in Chinese landscape painting, the blank space is just as important as the spaces occupied by the ink. So there are gaps or empty spaces between the movements, and empty spaces on stage”—just as there are aesthetically significant regions of white on the abstract, inked sheets hanging into the venue. Lin observes that Wild Cursive is particularly concerned with the calligraphic style of Kuang Chao or “what is considered the pinnacle of all forms of calligraphy, in which the writer does not have the mission of conveying a meaning through the characters. Instead, they are distorted into an individual expression. They are abstract, almost like a Jackson Pollock painting.” Like Pollock’s 1950s works, the choreography and the ink mediate between the charged void of the blank canvas, brimming with potential, versus powerful marks of personal expression.

Given Lin’s interest in creating evocative gaps between an affectively resonant stage space and equally emotive moving bodies, it is unsurprising that—like Cunningham—Lin draws on the aesthetics of John Cage. Cursive II is accompanied by Cage’s recordings, while Wild Cursive is performed to various sampled sounds (“ocean waves breaking onto a rocky beach, wind, cicadas, temple bells”) which Lin claims is “even more organic than Cage’s own music.” Many of Cage’s works include lengthy periods of near or total silence, as well as unusual timings and extended pauses. “The reason I chose Cage,” Lin explains, “is because of his energy. His breathing is so long. So we found a very comfortable stream in his music: long breathing. It goes on, and on and on. There is no metric form, as in 1,2,3, 1,2,3, that kind of rhythm. In the wait, you observe and you approach the music, just as you do in calligraphy—which is really an expression of how you feel. So we can draw things out. Cage’s music allowed us that space.”

Some critics have suggested that modern art should be read as reflecting an interplay between the so-called “unformed” and actual form itself, between a chaotic dissolution of art and an attempt to clearly delineate abstract shapes, lines, colours and aesthetic approaches (as proposed by the curators of the 1996 Pompidou exhibition Formless: A user’s guide). Given Lin’s interest in the dynamic relationship between those lines created by bodies and by brushstrokes and those empty spaces between these lines, one must ask if there is in fact a particular aesthetic form at play in these pieces, or if Lin’s choreography also dissolves into a kind of irresolvable haze of ink and paper akin to Pollock’s densest stains. Lin is however adamant that there is a recognisable form governing the trilogy. Viewing Cursive II, it is apparent that, for all of Lin’s interest in calligraphic abstraction and Tai-Chi, he remains committed to those classical forms which he was trained in—notably ballet and various styles of Asian courtly dance. While Lin Hwai-min is reluctant to describe his aesthetic in terms of such bodily shapes and poses as one finds in classical dance, he nevertheless concedes that his choreography is concerned with “the spiral. Even in ballet, while it’s very straightforward and direct, when you are lifting up an arm, the energy starts from a circular movement, and you come out with a spiral inside—just like a bullet comes out from a gun.” It is this sense of spiralling energy that underpins Lin’s aesthetic vision.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, Wild Cursive, His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth Festival Feb 19-21; Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, Cursive, Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, Feb 13-14 www.cloudgate.org.tw

RealTime issue #77 Feb-March 2007 pg. 38

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2007