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Taiwan: Dance for the masses

Famous dance troupe is feted abroad. So, what are they doing in the sticks?

CHANGHUA, Taiwan — The skinny, bespectacled man strides on stage, a slight figure facing tens of thousands on an overcast night in this central Taiwan city, where jumbled urban sprawl gives way suddenly to concrete-bound rice paddies.

"Da gei ho!" he bellows to the crowd — "Hello everyone!" in the Taiwanese dialect. "Ho!" comes the indistinct reply from the crowd, followed by thunderous applause.

This is Lin Hwai-min, one of Taiwan's best-known artists, revered for putting this small island on the map in the international arts scene. He stands alone on stage, a tiny illuminated figure from the perspective of the bleachers across the sports stadium, where bored local cops crack jokes and latecomers stream in, hunting seats.

("Wah-sei!" said one kid, using an expression roughly equivalent to "Whoah!", as he walked onto the bleachers. "There are so many people!")

Lin's troupe, the Cloud Gate Dance Theater, is now legendary in the world of contemporary dance for its distinctive blend of Western techniques (learned in New York City), Chinese culture and themes from Taiwan's own, unique historical legacy.

Cloud Gate has been anointed by the arts pooh-bahs in Manhattan and by critics in the most chic capitals of Europe. But tonight, the troupe is in central Taiwan, in a tumbledown town even most Taiwanese don't bother to stop in, to share high art with the masses — for free.

Lin goes on to tell the crowd, speaking in a mix of Taiwanese and Mandarin Chinese, that this is Cloud Gate's 22nd free concert in 15 years, and that by now they have performed for 2 million Taiwanese spectators. He thanks the show's volunteers, then turns the stage over to his performers.

Spectators up front — some of whom had arrived more than four hours earlier to secure a good vantage point — focus on the stage with hushed silence and rapt attention. On the fringes and in back, others chat and laugh, kids chase each other, and curious badminton players poke their heads in to see what all the fuss is about.

Changhua resident Adrian Liu, 37, talks and jokes with a group of cops just in front of the bleachers, his wife and 10-year-old daughter beside him. They ignore the start of the show, but later turn their heads stage-ward. "It's free, so we can come to this show," said Liu with a smile. "Usually it's too expensive."

Asked what he thought of Cloud Gate, "I think they can really represent Taiwan — everyone has heard of them and knows who they are."

On stage, a female dancer in green writhes, twirls her legs with spinning kicks, against a soundtrack of high, nervous strings, clacking wooden blocks and gongs.

The first dance piece — inspired by a Chinese folktale about a scholar seduced by a snake — ends. A brief film plays, explaining how the carved wood snake's nest used in the number had burned in a fire; earlier this year Lin Hwai-min found two craftsmen right here in Changhua County who made a new one. Everyone claps again.

Another piece begins, black-clad dancers leap and twist in the air, inspired by Chinese calligraphy. To one side of the audience, two kids toss around a fuzzy ball, their hands strapped into Velcro-lined paddles. Two other kids run away to race.

The deep, resonant strains of a Bach cello suite begin. A lone female dancer bathed in intense white light makes Tai-chi-like motions with her slight arms amid descending cello arpeggios. Kids and their parents begin to line up at the side of the audience for a chance to dance on stage after the show.

"Tony" and "Hannah" are two of them. Eight-year-old Tony says he doesn't really care to go on stage; older Hannah says she wants to, then shows off a cartwheel.