Staying in Step with Lin Hwai-Min
Recognized for "revitalizing the theatrical arts in Taiwan with modern dance that is at once eloquently universal and authentically Chinese"

by Bradley Winterton

In Taiwan you don't need to be a dance enthusiast to know who Lin Hwai-min is. The jaunty founder of the Cloud Gate Dance Theater is part of the modern history of the island and one of its most ardent admirers. A cherished topic: How Taiwan has been transformed in recent years into an international society like no other in the world. "These days," he says, "we go up to venerate the great masters in the National Palace Museum, then come down to eat in a McDonald's and watch Star Wars. You can go to the mountains and join in an aboriginal dance ceremony, then come back to Taipei and see an exhibition of works by Picasso. We travel to Paris, Rome, New York, and even to China. Old and new, it's all part of our life."

Ditto for Lin's dance company. Founded in 1973, Cloud Gate (it gets its name from China's oldest dance, dating back 5,000 years) is on a nonstop voyage through world cultures, fusing tai chi, meditation, Chinese opera, modern dance and ballet into an art form that has captivated international audiences. The Times of London, awed earlier this year by Songs of the Wanderers at the Sadler's Wells theater, says the company can fairly lay claim to being "Asia's leading contemporary dance theater."

Says Lin, 52: "My story has all along been a mixture of Taiwanese-Chinese, Western and Japanese influences - my parents were educated in Japan. Even today I talk to my dancers in Mandarin, Taiwanese dialect and English, quite indiscriminately." This magical compound of past and present, Asian and Western has been recognized by the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation, which has named Lin co-winner of the award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts. The board of trustees lauded the choreographer's skill in "revitalizing the theatrical arts in Taiwan with modern dance that is at once eloquently universal and authentically Chinese."

While addressing universal themes of struggle, freedom and spiritual enlightenment, Lin's dance compositions often depict or allude to real historical events that have marked Taiwan. His most famous production, Legacy, featured the voyage of the first Chinese crossing to Taiwan 300 years ago. Premiered on the day in 1978 that president Jimmy Carter announced the U.S. was switching diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing, it caused an indelible impression on the island's people.

Lin's awakening to dance came with the 1948 classic The Red Shoes - the tale of an aspiring dancer's struggle to join a famous ballet company. Lin saw the movie 11 times before he was six. By the age of 14, he was studying Chinese opera movement and paying for his first ballet lessons with money earned by writing. (He later published two novels.) The turning point came when Lin studied with modern dance pioneers Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham - influences that could be detected flitting through his early work with Cloud Gate. In 1983, Lin founded the dance department of Taiwan's National Institute of the Arts, becoming dean of its graduate program in 1993.

Cloud Gate's international prestige is such that Lin was recently offered the directorship of one of Europe's major dance companies. He would not say which one but confirms he turned down the offer. "How could I leave Taiwan?" he asks. "My dancers are friends, part of the family. I know their lives, their joys and their problems. It's out of this that I create." As if to confirm his commitment, Lin has announced he is forming a new company, Cloud Gate Two, to debut in October. "The company will go to villages, schools, community centers and banqueting halls. It's another challenge," he says.

Cloud Gate tours extensively. It was in London in April and will be in Berlin in August. After that comes the U.S. "We went on seven foreign tours in 1998," Lin says. "This year we will be away from home for four months."