- In 1973, Lin Hwai-min founded Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, a modern dance company that invigorated Taiwan’s performing arts.
- Lin created dances that reflected Graham’s influence but that also drew upon familiar acrobatic and pantomime conventions of Chinese opera.
- He choreographed modern-dance versions of Chinese classics and also created wholly original pieces such as Legacy, which depicted the trials of Chinese pioneers in Taiwan, set to traditional Taiwanese music.
- The RMAF Board of Trustees recognizes “his revitalizing the theatrical arts in Taiwan with modern dance that is at once eloquently universal and authentically Chinese.”
Although avant-garde Western painting and drama penetrated China quickly in the early twentieth century, modern dance was slow to find a foothold. Indeed, Taiwan’s Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, founded by Lin Hwai-min in 1973, may well be the first such company in any Chinese community anywhere. Yet under Lin’s direction, Cloud Gate’s brilliantly original dance compositions and stunning performances now rival the best in the world.
Born in Taiwan in 1947, Lin Hwai-min first felt the seductive pull of dance at the age of five while watching a film, The Red Shoes. Later, as a teenager, he thrilled to his first glimpse of modern dance and was hooked. Discouraged by his parents, however, he studied journalism instead and published two novels by age twenty-two. While in the United States to attend the International Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, Lin sought out modern-dance pioneer Martha Graham in New York and became a student in her school. Returning home, he established Cloud Gate in 1973.
In Taiwan, modern dance was little known to the public. Yet Lin’s first production filled the house, a harbinger of successes to come. For his fledgling company, Lin created dances that reflected Graham’s influence but that also drew upon familiar acrobatic and pantomime conventions of Chinese opera. He choreographed modern-dance versions of Chinese classics and also created wholly original pieces such as Legacy, which depicted the trials of Chinese pioneers in Taiwan, set to traditional Taiwanese music.
Lin trained his young dancers in Asian classical dance forms and in Tai Chi and meditation, as well as in modern dance and ballet. Over time, he perfected the unique fusion of styles and forms for which he is now famous, lifting traditional dance from its indigenous roots to the full flower of modern art. In Nine Songs, Lin combines dance techniques from India and Java with modern dance and incorporates ancient Chinese poems, aboriginal Taiwanese village songs, and stage lighting inspired by a trip to Bali. In his Songs of Wanderers, Georgian folk songs accompany Lin’s Zen-flavored interpretation of Herman Hesse’s novel of religious searching, Siddartha. And in Moon Water, Lin’s dancers glide in Tai Chi-like movements across the stage to the Suites for Solo Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach.
While addressing universal themes of struggle, freedom, and spiritual enlightenment, Lin’s dance compositions often depict or allude to real historical events, such as, in Nine Songs, the Taiwan massacres of 1947 and the 1989 tragedy at Tiananmen.
Viewing Lin’s work in the course of more than thirty-five international tours, critics the world round have hailed its poetic vision and breathtaking technical perfection, calling it “electrifying” and “irresistible.” In Taiwan, Cloud Gate performs to sold-out audiences in venues as disparate as the lavish National Theater and rural high school auditoriums. Several times a year, crowds of sixty thousand or more gather for the company’s free outdoor performances. Lin is happy to count many young people among his fans and promotes dance among them through community outreach programs and youth camps. For formal training, he founded the dance department of Taiwan’s National Institute of Arts in 1983 and later became founding dean of its graduate program.
Slight and bespectacled, fifty-two-year-old Lin moves with the gait and grace of the dancer that he is. His modern dance compositions cannot be understood in the way stories are understood, he says. They must be experienced. It is enough if people simply enjoy them. His true subject is not Taiwan or Asia or myth or history, he says, but “the landscape of the human heart.”
In electing Lin Hwai-min to receive the 1999 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts, the board of trustees recognizes his revitalizing the theatrical arts in Taiwan with modern dance that is at once eloquently universal and authentically Chinese.
Your Excellency, President Joseph Ejercito Estrada, First Lady, Dr. Luisa Ejercito Estrada, Members of the Magsaysay family, distinguished guests, trustees, fellow awardees, ladies and gentlemen:
It is a great honor for me to follow in the footsteps of so many of the giants of Asia in accepting this prestigious award.
Tzung Tze, the great Chinese philosopher, once told the story of a tree. People were complaining that the tree was twisted and gnarled, unsuitable for building a house or making furniture with. Tzung Tze said, why not leave that tree alone in the wild field, to give shade and comfort to tired travelers? As dancers, we are unable to stop a war, influence the stock market, or even
improve the living conditions of the poor. We provide spiritual space with the holy instrument that is our body. I identify with that twisted and useless tree.
If I were given an opportunity to make one wish for the next millennium, it would be thus: At the end of the next century, despite all the new technological developments, I hope that all the beautiful folk songs and folk dances from around the world will remain intact and alive. As we are entering the new millennium, the internet has enabled people on different continents to communicate with great convenience. But people are hooked to their computers; neighbors can be living as people on different continents. Dance should become more important, as people need to switch off and come to the dance gatherings, to share body warmth, energy and spirit with others. With further developments that are sure to come, however, people will be able to see scores of dance performances at home on internet theatre. This will make it even harder for professional dancers to survive.
The encouragement of the Magsaysay Award came at a moment when I was full of anxiety and self-doubt. It came as a reaffirmation and as a big push.
Respected trustees, thank you very much for recognizing this useless tree. It will grow stronger and better. It has to. Thank you.
A true child of Taiwan, he has drawn nourishment from the island and the world beyond and has given back to both his amazing gift of dance.
Lin Hwai-min was born on February 19, 1947, in Chiayi, a small but old and scenic city in south-central Taiwan. His family has deep roots in Taiwan, going back some seven generations to their ancestral town of Hsin Kang, one of the earliest Chinese settlements before the Manchus seized the island in the seventeenth century and brought the first significant wave of Chinese migrants to what Westerners then called Formosa.
Lin’s great-grandfather was a learned man, a poet and businessman who founded a factory and a bank and ran a Chinese school during the Japanese colonial period (1895–1945). (China ceded Taiwan to Japan in 1895, after Japan’s victory in the Sino-Japanese War.) Lin’s grandfather was a poet and medical doctor. Though both died before Lin was born, they were veritable figures of legend in the family when Lin was growing up.
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