Lin Hwai-min has been the driving force behind Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, since he founded the company (using the name of the oldest known Chinese dance), in 1973; coincidentally, the same year in which Pina Bausch became artistic director of the Wuppertal Opera Ballet, long since renamed, of course, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. The association between Bausch and Lin is valid, since both have been colossi of modern dance over the past half-century. Cancer robbed the world of any more works by Bausch, after 2009, but happily Mr Lin (now, 71) is still going strong.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan in <i>Formosa</i> © LIU Chen-hsiang
Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan in Formosa
© LIU Chen-hsiang

All human things must come to an end and Lin intends to retire at the end of 2019, handing over to Cheng Tsung-lung (currently artistic director of Cloud Gate Two). This work, Formosa, which premiered at the National Performing Arts Centre in Taipei, last November, is likely to be his swansong. It certainly seems that way, given that it is a love letter to the island that has housed his company for these past 45 years, his – and his dancers’ – island. It is, literally, thousands of love letters since the work is performed in nine sections to several recorded readings of poems about Taiwan and – as has been common to works by Lin – a visual landscape of Mandarin characters floods the seamless connection of backdrop and stage. 

I am reliably informed by my guest – a Mandarin speaker – that the characters are largely the names of places (mountains, rivers, towns) in Taiwan, which is, of course, the modern name for the Island of Formosa, described as such, by the exultations of 16th century Portuguese sailors, in awe of this beautiful, verdant land, rising from the sea (‘Formosa’ being Portuguese for ‘beautiful’). Lin’s use of characters, in this context, also provides an architectural structure to a bare set, at least in a roving series of two-dimensional façades. Towards the end of this 80-minute work, the characters merge into each other, slip from the backdrop onto the stage (as if mimicking a landslide on one of Taiwan’s many mountains) and they are washed away; symbols, meaning places, being reclaimed by the sea. As well as the literary associations with Taiwan, the work is replete with symbolic references to the island’s ecology.

Unless you are from Taiwan – or at the least a Mandarin-speaker – only the symbolism will be apparent, although helpfully the readings were translated into surtitles on the proscenium arch and printed in English, in the programme. Reading surtitles, while watching dance, is not a dual activity to be recommended. Here, it was best to let the dancers do the talking. Although there was a lyrical quality to the readings, my western sensibilities ached, at times, for a little more music.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan in <i>Formosa</i> © CHOU Tung-yen and Very Mainstream Studio
Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan in Formosa
© CHOU Tung-yen and Very Mainstream Studio

The 22 dancers perform in an extraordinary unios, as if each one is a precision part of a uniquely sophisticated machine; and yet they dance with a fluidity that is the antithesis to mechanism; more like flows of oil, or, perhaps more appropriately, liquid gold. The ethereal opening solo of Chen Mu-han, evoking the discovery of Formosa (‘a leaf floating along the edge of the Pacific’) and the striking impact of Chou Chen-yeh and Huang Mei-ya, opening the second section, as lovers in the rice paddies (‘Someone upwind is burning rice straw. Pale smoke wafts between us’) are enduring memories from the opening sequences. 

Each succeeding section brings allusions to the history of Taiwan, its wildlife and people (the background poetry is interlaced with indigenous song, from the Pinyumayan tribe), from the humdrum (‘taking the morning train’ and – best of all – ‘the traffic forecasts for the next two days’). The final ensemble dance – in the ninth section – references the beautiful island itself, surrounded by the whirling ocean, danced – as was the opening sequence – to recorded readings from the General History of Taiwan by Lien Heng.

Lin Hwai-min began his working life as a writer – he studied journalism – prior to founding Cloud Gate, and his love of writing – certainly in the structural beauty of Chinese characters – has influenced his long career in making dance. With Formosa, it seems as if he has brought his artistic journey to end - with perfect symmetry - in a full circle.