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Monday, April 15, 2019, 11:43
A life of silver linings
By Chen Jie
Monday, April 15, 2019, 11:43 By Chen Jie

Dust, choreographed by Lin Hwai-min to Shostakovich's String Quartet No 8 in C minor, premiered in 2014. (LIU CHEN-HSIANG / CHINA DAILY)

When Taiwan choreographer Lin Hwai-min paid a visit to India in 1994, an elderly local woman predicted that the then 47-year-old Lin would die at the age of 72.

"I've worked flat-out for 46 years since establishing Cloud Gate and I only really know choreography. Now it's time to slow down and learn about ordinary daily life."

Lin Hwai-min, Taiwan choreographer, founder of the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre

When he returned home, he found out from his family that he would die at 72 according to his bazi-the eight-character system used in the Chinese lunar calendar based on the specific time of a person's birth.

Was this simply coincidence or fate?

Either way, Lin says he is happy to accept this prediction, because "death is the most feared and uneasy aspect of life".

"But when you know your time has come, it becomes something of a relief and only helps you respect life more," he adds.

On Feb 19, he celebrated his seventy-second birthday.

The day before, the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, the company Lin founded in 1973, won the Stef Stefanou Award for outstanding company, one of the UK's national dance awards presented annually by dance critics from The Guardian and The Times newspapers.

ALSO READ: Moves and numbers

"It's the best birthday gift I could have received," Lin told a recent news conference in Beijing to publicize Cloud Gate's ongoing performances in Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai through April 27.

"It means that I can retire without any regrets."

In November 2017, he announced that he would step down as artistic director of Cloud Gate at the end of 2019 to make room for the next generation of talent.

But before that, he still intends to present his 2014 double bill of White Water and Dust.

"One is like lemon water, while the other is like vodka," Lin says of the two pieces.

During a trip to southern Taiwan, he passed the Liwuxi River and was so impressed by the shimmering beauty of the water that he took a photograph of it. The black and white print of it inspired him to choreograph the dance piece White Water, which features dancers in white costumes conveying the movement of the ripples on the water's surface.

Dust was inspired by Shostakovich's String Quartet No 8 in C minor. Lin says when he heard the piece of music many years ago, he was so "terrified" by its power that "his whole body shrank". He had not thought about choreographing the work until he visited Dresden, where Shostakovich composed the work in 1960, and dedicated it to the victims of fascism and war.

In February 1945, when Allies British and United States dropped high-explosive bombs on Dresden, an estimated 25,000 people were killed and the city center, an acclaimed European cultural landmark, was almost entirely destroyed. Although both British and American military officials defended the bombing as necessary, the air raid is still regarded as one of the most controversial events of the war.

Cloud Gate performs Lin's work, White Water, inspired by a river named Liwuxi in south Taiwan. (LIU CHEN-HSIANG / CHINA DAILY)

"These days, the world is suffering from even more disasters. People feel helpless. The Diamond Sutra (Buddhist text) mentions 'particles of dust', and in face of such cruelty, humans are as fragile and insignificant as dust," says Lin.

Born in 1947 in Taiwan's Chiayi county, Lin's initial passion for dance was awakened at the age of 5, when he saw the British film The Red Shoes. He was so impressed by the ballet sequences in the movie that he started performing them for his family. But he also showed great interest in reading and writing and published his first novel at the age of 14, and continued to enjoy fame as a writer in Taiwan in the 1960s and 1970s.

He then moved to the US and received his master's degree at the University of Iowa in 1972. During his stay, he began to learn about modern dance. He attended a modern dance course taught by Marcia Thayer and a summer program at the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance.

In 1973, he established the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, the first contemporary dance company in Taiwan. Lin said he once read in a history book that yunmen ("cloud gate") was the oldest dance form in China, with its origins dating back more than 2,000 years. Unlike most Western modern dance companies, Cloud Gate's dancers practice tai chi, kung fu, meditation and their early works feature stories about Chinese myths and legends.

The company not only takes to the stage at regular theaters, it also performs for underprivileged communities in a range of venues. His 2013 work, Rice, premiered in a paddy field to an audience of farmers in Chihshang, a town known for its rice, in Taiwan.

"I don't think elderly farmers found it difficult to understand my dances. Dance is all about movements and feelings-there's no paperwork or written test," says Lin.

But his unique approach to choreography of course earned him much academic praise.

Time magazine described Cloud Gate as "Asia's leading contemporary dance theatre" and his work Moon Water was selected by The New York Times as its best dance work of 2003.

In 2005, Lin was named as one of "Asia's heroes" by Time magazine and in 2009, he was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the International Movimentos Dance Prize in Wolfsburg, Germany.

In 2013, the choreographer received the prestigious Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival award for lifetime achievement, the first dancer outside the US or Europe to receive the accolade. Previous recipients include Martha Graham and Pina Bausch.

Lin remains humble and says he never expected to achieve major success.

"I always feel grateful that people still like to come to my shows," he says.

Lin suffered a bone fracture during a car accident in late 2016. Friends tried to comfort him by asking him why it happened to such a great choreographer. Lin says his reply was: "Why not me?"

But that experience did convince him to slow down.

Lin Hwai-min, Taiwan choreographer. (JIANG DONG / CHINA DAILY)

Lin says he had been considering retiring for a few years, as he felt that Cloud Gate needed fresh blood to lead the company into the future.

He says many contemporary dance companies fail or disappear altogether soon after the founder of the troupe leaves or dies, as in the case of Merce Cunningham and Pina Pausch.

"I don't want Cloud Gate to become a museum for Lin Hwaimin's works," he says. "Young people live in the information age of social media and handheld devices. I could not create a piece using special effects created on an iPad, but a young choreographer can."

After retiring, he will hand over his position to Cheng Tsung-lung. Cheng, 44, has performed internationally with Cloud Gate since 2001. He was the resident choreographer with Cloud Gate 2 between 2006 and 2010, and has served as its artistic director since 2014. Cloud Gate 2 was formed by Lin in 1999, with a focus on showcasing talented young choreographers and dancers from Taiwan.

READ MORE: Modern dance with folk

Lin says he will start a new life like any ordinary person after retiring, filling his days with cooking, washing dishes, cleaning the house, reading and watching soap operas.

"I've worked flat-out for 46 years since establishing Cloud Gate and I only really know choreography. Now it's time to slow down and learn about ordinary daily life."

Contact the writer at chenjie@chinadaily.com.cn

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