Taiwan: Dance for the masses

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.

Intermission. A 52-year-old Changhua native stands in back and to the side, chewing betel nut, spitting out the juice now and then into a nearby trashcan. "It's OK," he says of the show. "It depends on what you like."

He says the show is funded by the Cathay Financial Group, one of Taiwan's biggest banks and insurers, as a tax write-off.

"They just want to pay less tax," he said, then spat out another stream of brown-red juice. "Everyone here is from Changhua," he said; asked how he knows, "Because they're all wearing flip-flops." Other, less laid-back Taiwanese "wouldn't dare do that" at a special event like this.

The first time he saw Cloud Gate, the 52-year-old, who works in a health products factory, said he had to look at the program to understand what was going on. He says he once saw them perform a dance the program said was about Taiwan's White Terror (during martial law, 1949-1987), but he couldn't tell from looking what it was about. "But they performed really well," he added.

His beer-bellied friend comes by, clad in a dark blue polo shirt and holding a fan printed with slogans promoting the new China-Taiwan trade deal; they were passing those out for free, too. The first man says his 19-year-old son is at home, ("He prefers to watch TV in air-conditioning"), his daughter is still at work. Light rain begins to fall; the two men leave.

The last number wraps up, one with male dancers lifting up female dancers in bright pastel costumes, as bright pink paper in the shape of flower petals blows onto the stage from the wings; a petal downpour. The show ends, Lin comes out to take a bow with his dancers.

Then spectators are led on stage in groups, mostly kids and teens or 20-somethings, but a few older types, too. They run back and forth, dancing and throwing the pink paper around with excitement.
Little boys start flower-petal wars, throwing huge fistfuls in other kids' faces.

"The free concerts began 30 years ago, at first they were in front of temples, in the countryside," said Cloud Gate marketing director Liu Gia-yu. "Fifteen years ago Cathay started supporting it."

"He [Lin] wanted people who don't normally see dance to have a chance to see it," Liu said. "When he was young, nobody was promoting contemporary dance in Taiwan. No one understood what contemporary dance was."

"He thought the Taiwan public could understand contemporary dance, it's just that no one had performed it for them before."

These days, Cloud Gate is famous in global dance circles, and much in demand abroad. A second troupe, Cloud Gate 2, stays closer to home and to Lin's roots. "They don't go abroad, they spend all their time in central and south Taiwan, in the countryside or at schools and universities," Liu said. "All their concerts are free, except one during the Lunar New Year."

Back on stage, a spectator has lost his eyeglasses somewhere amid the pink petals. They have to clear the stage while staff comb through the pink jumble, looking for them. A father comes on stage and calls out for his lost daughter over a microphone.

The MC holds up one temple arm from the lost pair of glasses; it must have been ripped from the rest of the frames in all the stomping and running. A few minutes later the other temple arm is found, but not the lenses.

"This means there may be broken glass, so we can't let anyone else on stage," the MC said, apologizing to the last group of hyper kids and other would-be Baryshnikovs, still waiting for their moment.