Performance Peace

MOST CHOREOGRAPHERS ARE pleased with their completed dances. But Lin Hwai-Min, founder and artistic director of Taiwan's 25-year-old Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, goes a step further when it comes to his 1994 work, Songs of the Wanderers. "It's a golden dance," he says without hesitation, speaking by phone from a recent tour stop in California. "It's very special. It's a gift from Buddha."

Judging from Lin's experience making Songs, gifts from Buddha seem to arrive in mysterious ways. Several years ago, Lin--a dancer and writer whose novel Cicada is an all-time best seller in Taiwan--became immersed in Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha and found himself in Bodhgaya, the small village in northern India where Buddha first received enlightenment. After experiencing the meditative march of the Sadhu--holy men whose stark lives belie a wealth of inner spirituality--Lin returned home with an idea for a performance depicting the journeys of pilgrim wanderers in search of peace.

While dancers are certainly no strangers to hard work, the creation of sanctified moments on stage requires muscles of a more metaphysical sort. Lin introduced the Cloud Gate company members to his newfound concept with a strict regime: For three months they did nothing but sit cross-legged on the floor in meditation. When the time came for improvisation with eyes closed, Lin says, all were "very aware of the energy within their bodies." Eventually the director shaped the disciplined movement, drawing upon "very rounded and very slow" sources like tai chi. "It's very sensual," he says. "There are no technical jumps, no craziness. This dance is smooth--it's just about breathing but the movement is also rich with detail. It doesn't feel choreographed."

Further expanding the show's cultural reach, Lin chose a score of Islamic-influenced folk songs from the republic of Georgia to propel the wanderers' journey. And of course there's the sound of falling rice--three and a half tons of it, to be exact. At the start of Songs, we see a monk practitioner of chikung, a Chinese system of physical and spiritual exercises. He stands motionless, as he will throughout the 90-minute work, under a continuous stream of rice. Members of Cloud Gate surround him, performing a series of "ritualistic passages" inspired by the Sadhu. A man with a rake shifts the increasingly unruly rice into various patterns like one would find in a Japanese Zen garden.

"Rice is very holy in all parts of the world," says Lin. "The raker creates different landscapes with it: There's a river, a desert, an ocean. At the end of the performance, the rice grains fill the stage like rain. Afterward, only the raker stays on to shape the rice into the pattern of a sparrow."

For Lin, the most satisfying result of the Songs tour has been its proven ability to transcend traditional barriers of religion, tapping into a more global kind of spirituality. "The whole performance is like it takes place in a church," he observes--which isn't to say that institutional belief is a prerequisite for appreciating it. Leave it to Cloud Gate--the first modern company for Chinese dancers, daringly founded in 1973 during the era of Chinese martial law--to make an informed and universal statement about the quest for peace. In this sense, Buddha not only found a worthy recipient for his gift, but also recognized an eloquent messenger.

Songs of the Wanderers is performed Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in Northrop Auditorium, 84 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis. Tickets cost $19.50-$29.50. Call 624-2345.

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