All art has the power to inspire, to be thought-provoking and teach us about the true nature of life. With that said, it wouldn’t be right to view Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s Song of Wanderers at Meany Hall on Thursday, March 6, as simply a dance performance. Presented as part of the UW World Series, the piece drew inspiration, in part, from the Hermann Hesse novel, Siddhartha. Just as the book depicts the Gautama Buddha’s journey through spiritual discovery, willing audience members were afforded the opportunity to go on a similar peaceful voyage: to sit still, to truly experience each second, and to be mindful of every butoh-like movement.
To clarify, there was nothing “preachy” or pressuring about this dance—no call to take up meditation or to become a Buddhist. Like watching Fix Me Jesus in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, the viewer was left more with a window into the rich religious traditions of Asia. It was compelling in a way similar to watching something in nature. The dancers’ limbs unfurled like smoke, like the growing of a tree root, like the beginning of a storm. Nothing was rushed, everything happened in its own time. If the viewer turned away for a moment, the dancers would have morphed into a whole new formation. Recordings of soulful Georgian folk-songs provided resonant ambiance in the background.
Led by Artistic Director and choreographer Lin Hwai-min, the Taiwanese company’s 24 dancers have an aesthetic that’s all their own. Their regular training in Qi Gong, internal martial arts, meditation, modern dance, ballet, and calligraphy is apparent, as is their profound connection to the cultural roots of their homeland. A significant part of that heritage, of course, is rice. Rice throughout Asia is not simply a food; this tiny grain is synonymous with life, vital to economies and to agricultural subsistence. Reverence for rice is woven into spirituality, too. It seemed fitting that rice would take center-stage in this performance—literally, three-and-a-half-tons of it, to be precise.
When the performance began, the audience heard the rice before they saw it. Out of the darkness, a spotlight revealed what appeared to be a golden pole on the ceiling above the stage. As the light made more and more of the pole visible, it became clear that it was not a pole at all, but a slender stream of rice pouring from the rafters onto the bald head of a monk. Throughout the 90-minute performance, this man stood like a statue, hands clasped together in namaste. The rice shower never slowed or stopped.
Meanwhile, the dancers emerged from the shadows dressed in rags, carrying staffs like ancient pilgrims. In the beginning, the grain scattered on stage looked like a river that the thirsty travelers eyed with longing. Walking on their haunches in a deep plié, the dancers revelled in the rice as if in slow motion. Finally, one by one, the male dancers flung their bodies to the floor—sending the rice flying forward spectacularly onto the stage.
The central set piece served different needs as well. At one point, the rice ceased to be a river-refuge and instead, seemed to represent an overwhelming haystack in the search for the needle of knowledge. A male soloist violently threw himself onto the mounds of rice collected on stage, struggling to right himself again and again. All the while, the man dressed as a monk remained serene, bathed in the heavenly rice—his calm expression contrasting sharply with the dancer’s physical struggle. Similarly, in Hesse’s book, the reader sees different sides of Siddhartha: the pleasure seeker, the ascetic, the monk. There is a tension between the everyday mortal man who makes mistakes and becomes frustrated and The Enlightened One.
At the end of the performance, after all the rice had fallen to the stage, a single male dancer began the painstaking task of raking the rice into an exquisite spiral. The shape directly evoked Hesse’s prose in Siddartha: “Whither will my path yet lead me? This path is stupid, it goes in spirals, perhaps in circles, but whichever way it goes, I will follow it.” Like the Buddha, Lin’s dancers’ seemed to yield to the unbending arc of uncertainty, of darkness and suffering, with grace.
The international tour of Songs of Wanderers heads to Chicago next for performances in March. To learn more about Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, see to https://www.cloudgate.org.tw/eng/.