The Calligraphy of the Body

The Calligraphy of the Body

Choreographer Lin Hwai-min and his calligraphy trilogy Cursive – arguably the most important dance theatre piece in the world at the moment

What better time than a jubilee for a critic to make a fool of himself. Having said that, I maintain that – William Forsythe, Hans van Manen, Pina Bausch and Merce Cunningham notwithstanding – there is no other work on the international dance scene today that comes anywhere near Cursive (the trilogy developed by Taiwanese choreographer Lin Hwai-min) in terms of artistic importance. Its length alone is extraordinary. It not merely consists of three single-act performances, but of three choreographies: each long enough to fill an entire evening, and each describing the development of an entire art form – Chinese calligraphy – without ever becoming anecdotal. Asia’s most important choreographer, and one of the most important artists working in the field of creative dance at present, has invested five years of his artistic life in preparing and producing this powerful work. And the results certainly justify the means. Lin’s Cursive trilogy, which comes at the end of a great century, reinvigorates dance, which had become dull and shallow. Audiences who think they know all there is to know about dance are in for a surprise: for when they see the calligraphy of the body, with which the male and female dancers in the Cloud Gate Theatre of Taiwan paint huge abstract – but never anaemic – pictures, they will come away with an entirely new perspective on this form of art, the world and life.

Lin Hwai-min, who enjoys a degree of popularity in his home country that would be almost unimaginable here, is certainly no unknown quantity in Berlin. His father was a high-ranking politician in the Kuomintang government. As a teenager, Lin Hwai-min discovered his love of dance when he encountered José Limon’s The Moor’s Pavane. He became a professional dancer after receiving a scholarship to study literature in the USA. In 1973, with the aid of some borrowed money, he founded the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in his home town of Taipei. His theatre, which has long since become world famous, gave its first performance in Germany in 1981, and has returned a number of times since. Three of Lin’s most important recent pieces, which take up an entire evening, have been performed in Berlin: Song of the Wanderers (performed at the House of World Cultures in 1997), Moon Water (in August 1999 at the Deutsche Oper) and Portrait of the Families“ (in October 2000 at the Schillertheater). And if Götz Friedrich, then director of the Deutsche Oper, hadn’t put a spanner in the works, his company would have been graced with a brand-new work by Lin, tailor-made for Germany’s new capital city, Berlin.

The contribution made by the now 59-year-old Lin Hwai-min to the world history of dance art lies in the perfect synthesis of western modern dance (which the young dance-enthusiast studied in New York under Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham) and Asian styles and themes. The result is an entirely original, personal vocabulary. And it was with this vocabulary that he composed pieces such as Legacy (1978), which describes the colonisation of the island of Formosa by Chinise immigrants; Nine Songs (1993), which broke for the first time with the taboo – so prevalent in the 1940s – that one should not talk about the atrocities of the Kuomintang; and Portrait of the Families (1997), which deals – in dance and images – with fifty years of Japanese occupation, and finally ends up as an aesthetic declaration of independence from China. In this way, Lin has made no mean contribution towards giving his compatriots a sense of cultural identity. Cursive, a Trilogy can rightly be considered a synthesis of Lin Lin Hwai-min’s choreographic oeuvre, despite the restraint it exercises vis-à-vis social and political issues.

Right from the very start, Lin Lin Hwai-min was very anxious to revitalise his own roots in order to create a Taiwanse dance art. In recent years, he has become even more interested in his own culture. Lin’s dancers are trained not only in classical ballet and modern dance but also in Kung Fu, the dance art of the Beijing Opera. Furthermore, as pieces such as Songs of the Wanderers (1994) and Moon Water (1998) – with its extremely slow movements – show, they have also been studying Tai Chi since the early 1990s. Ultimately, the Cursive trilogy is also the product of a lengthy study of the movement of contemplation that was cultivated in Ancient China. Both the title and the main driving force of Cursive are inspired by the art of calligraphy, a Chinese painting form that has been the focus of Lin’s studies in recent years.

When he was studying the masterpieces of Chinese calligraphy, Lin Hwai-min discovered that, ‘beyond all stylistic differences, there was a common element: the concentrated energy with which the calligraphers “danced” while they were writing’. With this in mind, Lin initially got his dancers to improvise in his studio to huge enlargements of classical calligraphies. The dancers assimilated the energy coming from the writers, followed the flowing ink lines, setting in motion the “written” figures that had exploded and then transmogrified from the silence of meditation into the rapid motions of martial arts. In autumn 2001, these movements gave birth to Cursiv, the first part of the trilogy, which is certainly related to pieces such as Songs of the Wanderers and Moon Water, although the calmer sequences of his kindred predecessors are suddenly interrupted, especially in the second part, by brief flashes of rapidly executed movements.

They perform to a commissioned work, composed by QuXiao-song (who lives in Shanghai), in which several drums form a contrast to a single cello. In this two-part work, ten images unfold in interaction with projected calligraphies and dancing figures that have been designed with great energy, creating the impression of a Chinese scroll painting that shows not a landscape, but a contemporary dance of rare intensity and extraordinary discipline.

Two years later, Lin Hwai-min returned to the theme of calligraphy, which he evidently finds an inexhaustible source of inspiration. Calligraphies are written – or rather painted – with a broad brush and ink. The trained eye can identify five different shades of black ink. Cursive primarily deals with jet-black shades. It dramatically projects famous examples of old calligraphies behind and alongside the dancers. Lin’s latest work, Cursive II, mainly deals with the lighter nuances of colour found in this form of painting. It completely avoids confronting the Cloud Gate dancers with calligraphic art works. Here, the choreographer himself paints with the bodies of the dancers. This does not mean that there are no projections in Cursive II, but simply that instead of using calligraphies, it employs enlarged sections of photos of the precious eggshell-white porcelain produced during the Sung Dynasty (from 900 AD on).

For this piece, Lin Hwai-min uses music that John Cage composed mainly during the early 1990s: ascetic, rather melodic works from his “Asian” period, written partly for Tibetan instruments, and making generous use of the silence between the phases of musical activity. They both allow the music to breathe and create a climate in which the choreography can evolve freely. As in Cursive, the ten movements of the choreography work with the vocabulary of Tai Chi, but in a different, more lyrical, manner. The second part of the trilogy is pure poetry and redefines the concept of choreographic beauty in a sign language that is unmistakably Chinese yet shows a deep affinity with the occidental tradition of the “white ballet”, which includes such works as Swan Lake, Les Sylphides, and choreographers such as Balanchine and Robbins, Cunningham and Hans van Manen.

Two years on, in the late autumn of 2005, Lin completed his calligraphy trilogy mit Cursive III. This time, the young Taiwanese Jim Chum and Liang Chun-ma provide the music, which largely consists of hard drumbeats and wind noises. Calligraphy has not stood still over the centuries, but has allowed itself ever-greater liberties. Logically, Cursive III – a modern ‘wild’ style of calligraphy emancipated from all tradition – is expressed in forms that defy all rules. In the process, it not only takes us into the world of contemporaneous dance, but also points towards the future. It is a magnificent study on dynamics and the passage of time.

Classical calligraphy has forced Lin into playing the role of an ornament – albeit an important one. There are no more projections. Instead, strips of snow-white rice paper are lowered successively from the cyclorama. Invisible devices put black ink on the paper, creating signs on the paper as it drops. Meanwhile, the dancers’ bodies, both in front of and between the black-and-white net curtains, write the true calligraphy: the brilliant, 24-member Cloud Gate Ensemble of perfect dancers dressed in unpretentious black fluttering costumes, to which an ingenious light design confers a magical aspect.

The audience can, of course, pick out parts of the trilogy and enjoy them separately. Each of the three Cursive choreographies is a grandiose work in its own right. It is only when one sees them all together, however, that one can truly appreciate the artistic power of Lin Hwai-min’s trilogy and grasp how fabulously he has succeeded with this aesthetic tour de force. The performance of entire trilogy in Berlin is only the second of its kind since it had its world première in Hong Kong. Not even in Taiwan have Cursive, Cursive II and Cursive III been shown in succession.

Jochen Schmidt