Taiwanese Dancers Enact Chinese Agricultural Year

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various composers, Rice: Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan/Sadler’s Wells, Sadler’s Wells, London, 27.2.2014 (JO’D)

Dancers: Yang I-chun, Chen Mu-han, Cheng His-ling, Fan Chia-hsuan, Hsiao Tzu-ping, Ko Wan-chun, Kuo Tzu-wei, Liu Hui-ling, Su I-ping, Lee Tsung-hsuan, Tsai Ming-yuan, Yu Chien-hung, Chien Tsung-chiao, Chiu-I-wen, Hou Tang-li, Huang Pei-hua, Huang Mei-ya, Huang Hsiao-che, Huang Lu-kai, Lai Chun-wei, Lin Hsin-fang, Wang Po-nien, Yeh Yi-ping, Yu Chien-hung, Lai Chun-wei, Chen Wei-an, Chiu-I-wen, Lee Tzu-chun, Wong Lap-cheong, Chou Chang-ning


Concept/Choreography: Lin Hwai-min
Music: Hakka traditional folk songs; Drum music by Liang Chun-mei; Bellini (Casta Diva); Saint-Saëns (Le Rossignol et la Rose); Ishii (Monochrome II); Strauss (Im Abendrot)
Set Design: Lin Keh-hua
Lighting Design: Lulu W.L. Lee
Projection Design: Ethan Wang
Videographer: Chang Hao-jan (Howell)
Costume Design/Execution: Ann Yu Chien, Li-Ting Huang/Department of Fashion Design from Shih Chien University
Divided into segments with titles such as ‘Soil’, ‘Wind’, ‘Grain’ and ‘Fire’, Rice (which premiered in Taiwan in 2013) is the story of the agricultural year. Through it move men and women whose gestures are based on martial arts, meditation and the Martha Graham technique (‘Carve a place for yourself in space’). In their long, shift dresses and movement that has the centre of the body as its source, the women who first appear on the stage (after one man, bearing a bamboo cane, has walked across it) may owe something to the ‘Pioneer Woman’ of Graham’s ‘Frontier’ (1935) and ‘Appalachian Spring’ (1944). Their dresses are dyed in bright, but soft and ‘earthy’ colours. On a screen behind the women, partially revealed at first, is the image of a muddy, water-filled rice field, filmed in close up.

The screen (which towers over the dancers) will bring light, colour, and a sense of space to the Sadler’s Wells auditorium as it shows images of rice fields at different seasons. In a pre-show talk, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre founder and choreographer Lin Hwai-Min said rice was at the core of Taiwanese culture, and that he had not wanted these images to resemble ‘postcards’ of the landscape. In fact, they are more like Expressionist paintings. The dancers later roll up sections of the floor-covering to ‘reveal’ rectangles of the film projected horizontally. The stage becomes bathed in brilliant green or burning red.

If there was a sense of ritual about ‘Nine Songs’ (the work that the company performed last week), ‘Rice’ has the same ‘impersonal’ atmosphere. The dancers move in groups (except for the section entitled ‘Pollen II’ in which a man and a woman perform a slow, necessary, choreographed act of reproduction). Their movements are never decorative. When they jump, or are lifted, into the air they point their feet upwards and splay their toes. With no ‘characters’ to identify with, the audience is kept at something of a distance. That could just be a question of ‘bourgeois individualism’, but I was aware, at times, of the gap between the stage and the stalls. And it was disconcerting, suddenly to hear the very personal Maria Callas singing ‘Casta Diva’ on a soundtrack that had until then included only ‘Hakka traditional folk songs’.

Like ‘Nine Songs’, ‘Rice’ ends with death and the hope (or promise) of regeneration. The young men, at their most vigorous, have used their bamboo canes to put out the stubble-burning fires. The canes are now lying on the stage; the men have departed. Slowly, the women appear, as if in mourning for the men or for the bare earth. They each pick up a cane and, treating it as if it were a corpse or a relic, make their way off the stage by inches. The last woman, in a dress of  dark brown, does not leave but stands up to place her cane, vertically, defiantly, in the ground.


John O’Dwyer