'The feet of the wanderer are like the flower, his soul is growing and reaping the fruit'

The Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan is named after the oldest known dance in China. This performance, Songs of the Wanderers, was born twenty-two years ago when its choreographer, Lin Hwai-min, travelled to Bodh Gaya village (in the Indian state of Bihar) where Buddha had attained his enlightenment under a bodhi tree. There, resting on the bank of the nearby Neranja River, Lin Hwai-min understood that Buddha was an ordinary man who experienced human confusion and struggle. Under the bodhi tree, among monks and twittering birds, Lin Hwai-min watched as the sun penetrated its branches and appeared to rest its rays on his forehead. Music and light were to play a special role in his choreography.

Wang Wei-ming in <i>Song of the Wanderers</i> © Yu Hui-hung
Wang Wei-ming in Song of the Wanderers
© Yu Hui-hung
The evening is a performed meditation. Sins are destroyed by the fatigue of the wanderer, and we are offered a journey to alleviate our burdens. There are many influences upon Lin's dancers: martial arts; Qigong (a system which integrates physical postures, breathing techniques and concentration), meditation and weekly classes of ballet and contemporary dance. The central force is gravity, the Earth, from which the dancers emerge. They often initiate movement from a deep plié in second position. Their dancing is rounded and elastic. 

The polyphonic harmonies of Georgian folk songs sung by the Rustavi choir have resonance in the groupings formed by the dancers: a diversity of body movements or voices blending into a visual whole. The changing, unaccented motion impresses design upon the surrounding space. The lighting, by Lin Szu-chen, like Lin Hwai-min's sun, throws figures into sharp relief. The space becomes three-dimensional and draws the audience into its interior, a visual metaphor for meditation.

The rhythmic breathing of the dancers exists inside the unaccented song; occasionally performers dance in silence or move more rapidly than the chanting. As the composition builds, the dancers launch themselves into the air or engage in pas de deux. A monk stands at the side of the stage, his hands folded in peaceful prayer, and he remains in that position throughout the performance which lasts for 90 minutes without interruption. Prayers I,II,III, and IV are interspersed with: 'Holy River'; 'On the Road I'; 'Rite of Tree'; 'Rite of Fire' and 'On the Road II'.

Wu Chun-Hsien in <i>Song of the Wanderers</i> © Yu Hui-hung
Wu Chun-Hsien in Song of the Wanderers
© Yu Hui-hung

'On the Road II' features pas de deux that are overwhelming in emotional intensity and frozen in time, like carvings on an ancient Indian temple. It was danced by two women: Chen Mu-han and Su I-ping and four men: Huang Li-cheh; Huang Lu-kai; Tsai Ming-yuan and Wong Lap-cheong. The emphasis throughout the performance remains on wandering or searching. The finale is also a beginning, as life is represented in expanding concentric circles. The stage can explode with the dancer's energy or it can remain mute as the monk. Lin's creation is a mystical tapestry in which repetition takes the place of memory and silence is provocative. The technique  of the dancers is strong but supple, flowing and sustained.

The understated costumes blend into the grains of rice, which make the dancers appear to grow from the soil as organic matter. I must speak about the rice. Over three tons of it fall to the floor in 'Songs'. (The rice is sterilized, dyed a golden colour, washed, dried a second time.) It can be construed as mythical landscapes – a river, a hill, a desert – into which these pilgrims journey. They lean on their staffs or they carry leaf-filled branches or they burn fires.The rice shimmers and rustles or pours. 

The performance is a religious vision in dance. Songs of the Wanderers is an exceptional and beautiful theatre experience. 

*****