Beauty is a weapon
Lin Hwai-min, the founder, director and choreographer of the Taiwanese dance company Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, talks about the tradition of calligraphy, the political nature of beauty and an accident that saved him
IN TRANSIT: What does Cursive stand for?
Lin Hwai-min: Chinese characters began as very simple and very comprehensible pictorial symbols. The sun was a circle with a dot in the middle, and the moon a crescent semi-circle. Gradually, the symbols evolved into characters. The sun became a rectangle with a horizontal line in the middle, and the moon a slim arch with two horizontal lines. Several variations of characters were developed through the age. They were cut on slats of wood and bamboo. A major breakthrough came when brush was invented. The softness of the brush enabled writers to round the edges of carved words and perfect the strokes and dots of characters into a more lyrical form. Hence, calligraphy was born.
Around the 5th century, the style of cursive evolved to maturity. Calligraphy became an aesthetic matter. Characters were distorted and no longer served the goal of communicating meanings. They increasingly served individual and artistic expression, just like contemporary abstract painting. So abstract that it was not possible for common people to decipher their meanings. This process is clearly demonstrated through the video projection in Cursive, part one of the Cursive trilogy.
Calligraphy – brush work – is the root of Chinese art. Every painter is a master of calligraphy. In Europe, pictures are hung up in public buildings and private houses. In China, people prefer calligraphic tableaux. You find them everywhere, side by side with ink painting, complimenting each other.
IT: Do people in China always understand the meanings of the different forms of calligraphy?
LIN: Yes, but cursive is something else. It carries meanings, and generally takes the form of poems or aphorisms. But not everyone in China is in a position to understand them. You have to study calligraphy. For the elites, calligraphy is a basic discipline, an expression of taste and temperament, and a way of socializing and cultivating contacts. People meet and write, while others supplement or echo it. Only if you practice calligraphy yourself can you read and understand cursive. But actually, it’s not the meaning but the beauty that counts.
Calligraphy and movement are closely linked to one another. Before you start to write, you warm yourself up: you make your body soft and supple. It’s important to watch your rhythm and your breathing. You can be a good writer only if you breathe properly. It’s exactly the same with dance. A good calligrapher is a dancer. He leaves his energy on blank rice paper, while dancers in space.
IT: Could Cursive Trilogy be regarded as a piece of research into the history of calligraphy?
LIN: For heaven’s sake no. I have never done any research. But I obviously inform myself. I know a lot about calligraphy. But that’s simply because I enjoy reading the masterpieces. It’s never been systematic. Whenever I’ve tried to transfer theoretical knowledge directly onto the stage, it’s failed. It’s been one-dimensional. So Cursive Trilogy shouldn’t be about history and tradition, but about enjoyment and spontaneity.
I had always wanted to do something on the theme of calligraphy for twenty years. We were so used to say that good calligraphy is like a flying dragon or a dancing phoenix and that you have to make the letters dance. And I wanted to do something with that. But I wasn’t ready for it until 2001 when dancers, trained in traditional body disciplines, were ready. When we started working on Cursive in 2001, we hadn’t planned any sequels. It was only after the première when I realized that we’d only just started our journey and that there was still so much to discover. I would say Cursive was the beginning of an extensive process of exploring the body. Between the different parts, we took breaks of one or two years so that the dancers could further develop their “kung fu,” which in Chinese means both the skill and time spent. The three parts have turned out very differently, partly because I was so unsatisfied with the first part, Cursive. I felt I’d crammed too much into the pieces. The result was incredibly serious, almost too serious in fact. But with each new part, we felt increasingly free, both with regard to the form and the movement. The third part is a knockout, because you can no longer see the choreography and the choreographer. That’s always been my highest goal. The dancing looks like pure improvisation; it’s as if there were no more structure. Choreography disappears behind the physical energy of the dancers. As time passed, we had more and more space. Now I even like the first part again, because it really makes perfect sense as the solemn starting point of the journey.
IT: Can the trilogy be understood without any basic knowledge of calligraphic principles?
LIN: Some people say that I follow the ideas of Yin and Yang. The brush strokes and the empty page (space), effort and effortlessness. As a result of all the leg kicking, some people thought the piece was some kind of choreography about fighting. Maybe they’re right. I haven’t the slightest idea. Nowadays I don’t spend much time thinking about it. I don’t theorize about my work. For me, the most important thing about my artistic work is being in contact with my guts, that’s where all our experience is stored. I found it a painful process – the transition from writer to choreographer, and forgetting all the words that were in my mind. It took me twenty years to get that far. Now I see and think in categories like movement and energy. What energy do my dancers pass on to the audience? - That’s the only thing that moves the audience. It’s not what they see – but how they sense it. So, yes, people knowing nothing about calligraphy can still appreciate the works. They sense. They are involved. It happens so in all cities where trilogy has been performed.
IT: Doesn’t abstract beauty run the risk of losing all the sensuousness of beauty?
LIN: Beauty, as I understand it, is based above all on an incredible degree of freedom. The kind of freedom you can only attain through discipline. Beauty inspires thoughts. It’s a weapon. The beauty and the silence of Cursive Trilogy demand a lot from the audience – a lot of concentration and patience. In a way, these three pieces are an answer to the chaotic situation of our daily lives. Nobody should start getting any ideas about the trilogy being apolitical.
IT: What role does a well-known artist like you play in the complex political situation in Taiwan?
LIN: When Cloud Gate was founded in 1973, martial law, enforced in 1949, was still prevailed for the following fourteen years, and everything that was written was yet censored – even pop songs. It was easier with dance, being more ambiguous. Once, however, I was summoned because of a series of anonymous reports. The censors apologized to me, congratulated me on the performance they went to check and told me that our talk was a pure formality to enable them to close the case. Quite some time afterwards, I found out that there had been some discussions in the highest government circles about shutting down Cloud Gate. They decided to let us continue. Don’t forget that I founded the company while I was still a famous writer. That protected us for a long time. But we were afraid. Time and time again, I saw authors being put in prison. For a long time, Nationalist government stressed that we were all Chinese. Taiwan only took up about two or three pages in the history books. The rest was all about the mainland’s glorious history, which stretched back more than five-thousand years. In 1978, I did a piece, called Legacy, about the first wave of Chinese settlers in Taiwan about 400 years ago. It was the very first time that a theatre work had ever dealt with the history of Taiwan. And that could very possibly be considered as a pro-Taiwan Independence work. So, I staged the première a long way away from the capital to avoid the censors.
On the day of the première, of all things, Jimmy Carter severed diplomatic relationship with Taiwan. Suddenly Legacy suited the Kuomintang government that was anxious to calm the people in the face of American “betrayal”– an amazing coincidence. Since then, I’ve frequently provoked reactions from those in power. I feel an obligation to do so being part of intelligentsia, but I generally do so outside my dance pieces. After all, words are more direct and less ambiguous than movements in discussing issues. I get openly involved in debates on current affairs. But I have never allowed myself to be co-opted by any political party. I speak as a citizen. I’m too much of a down-to-earth craftsman for that. Cloud Gate’s survival helps people more than my going into politics or directing the national theatre would. We broaden the horizons of the people. We provide food for their souls.
Interview with Felix Schnieder-Henninger for IN TRANSIT 06; © www.kulturpr.com