The spirit of pilgrimage is evoked in a striking new performance, Songs of the Wanderers, which looks at tradition through contemporary eyes.
Dance has been a pivotal part of human communication since prehistoric times; paintings found in the Bhimbetka rock shelters in India depict communal dance and rhythmic movement as being part of society from as early as the Mesolithic era, around 10,000 BC. Across the world it has links with ritual and ceremony, from the haka of the Māori to the British Morris dance. And it is often used with religious intent, whether the whirling of the Dervish, the traditional Jewish wedding dances or the dancing at Mardi Gras.
Lin Hwai-min, founder and artistic director of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan says that religious ritual was one of the roots of dance and his production, Songs of the Wanderers, certainly speaks to this ancient and mesmerising aspect of dance. “The stage is a ritual site on which a series of rites unfold,” he says. These ceremonies were inspired by Lin’s visit to India in 1994, where he meditated beneath the same Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya where Siddhartha, or Buddha, is said to have attained his enlightenment. “I felt a patch of heat on my forehead. Opening my eyes, I found sunlight coming through the branches of the tree to land on me. My heart was lled with joy and a quietness that I had never experienced. With that same sense of peacefulness, I choreographed the work. I always feel that Songs is a gift from Buddha.”
A stunning piece of stagecraft, Songs of the Wanderers features evocative choreography amongst a striking landscape of golden rice. Over three tonnes of it pour across the stage. Gold in colour, it rains down on the dancers and creates hills and deserts. In turn, it adds to the meditative nature of the piece as dancers manipulate it into concentric circles suggestive of a mandala – a ritual symbol found in Indian religions. The dancers move slowly through the space and everything appears methodical and considered. A monk stands in a corner of the stage throughout, with rice showering down onto his head. This array of images expresses the quietude that Lin experienced under the tree.
There is a distinct pace to the performance that is rhythmic and deliberate; the “sense of peacefulness” that Lin harnesses is apparent in the steady, unrelenting movement of the dancers. They contrast with the still figure of the monk, who meditates throughout the performance. Lin says that he hoped “this arrangement would alter the audience’s perceptions about time”. The presence of the calming figure does indeed introduce something powerful, a permission to the audience to engage in contemplation, to seek solitude.
This is not just a piece about asceticism, though; as mentioned by Lin, there is also great joy in it. The dancers spin, twirl and throw rice through the air in ecstasy. These movements may be different in pace from other aspects of the performance, but they retain the same feeling of rhythm, entranced. This, in combination with the chanting of the Rustavi Choir and the oceanic sound of the grains in movement works to create a feeling of transcendence. It is reverent in a religious way but also in the way that performers at a music festival might experience reverence. Lin manages to combine the ancient and the modern, creating a show that speaks to audiences across the world of all backgrounds.
The production has toured 20 countries, which is fitting for something described as an homage to pilgrimage. The work is not only influenced by the story of Siddhartha’s quest for enlightenment but also by Lin’s experience watching the pilgrims at the Ganges in Varanasi, India. “Downstream, Hindus drank from the river in their morning rituals. I was touched. That fervent quest for salvation is universal.” This statement is supported by the production’s success globally, although Lin admits that “every person understands it according to their cultural backgrounds. Some of my Indian friends told me interpretations that were very different from my original conception.” But of course that is the beauty of any form of pilgrimage; it is always a personal excursion.
In the spirit of this idea of the journey, Lin talks about his reasons for using a choir from Georgia to provide the soundtrack to his work rather than one from his home clearly country of Taiwan. He remarks that “although most of them were folk songs, the chant-like quality of their polyphony singing has a strong religious avour that moves listeners.” This idea of music as a method of transportation ties in with the concept of religious journeys, which are, after all, a type of transportation, whether physical or spiritual. Although, this act of spiritual conquest is something which has been sidelined by many in the Western world, it still holds huge significance in other parts of the planet. Taiwan plays host to one of the world’s biggest pilgrimage events, the Mazu International Festival, which takes place over a nine-day multi-city hike, drawing more than five million participants.
With his moving, modern expression of these enlightened journeys, Lin manages to resurrect something many have forgotten and brings it into relevance for the present day. Although he doesn’t reference his own country’s tradition of pilgrimage, aspects of the production’s Asian heritage are apparent in other ways. One of these is his use of rice as a material. Lin suggests that it was a natural choice, given the importance of it as a major staple food in Taiwanese life and culture; however, the way he uses it is transformative. “After hundreds of performances, I still find those grains fascinating. Bathed in golden light they transform into rivers, hills, desert, storms and waterfalls. And the subtle rustling sound of the rice falling from above, or movements evoked by dancers, also become a part of the soundscape.”
In his previous production, Moon Water, the prevailing element was free-flowing water, which pooled across the stage and wet the dancers’ costumes as they splashed and swept it across the space. In many ways this performance is the opposite to its predecessor: golden rice and fire in earthenware bowls evoke the elements of fire and earth. Even the music is different; where the solo cello of the last performance had an ethereal quality, Songs of the Wanderers is robust and rooted in its style. When one recalls the patch of heat on Lin’s forehead at the site of Buddha’s attainment of nirvana, the origins of the element choice become clear.
Heat and fire have also had a negative impact on Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, though, as their long-rented studio was destroyed by fire in 2008. Thankfully the company have now relocated to a new venue, custom built with the support of 4,000 generous donors. As the first contemporary dance company in any Chinese speaking community, the work of Lin Hwai-min and the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre is vitally important for bringing new and exciting ideas into the world of dance. Their new home will allow them to continue producing innovative work and to cultivate the next generation of young performing artists in the spirit of rebirth.
Words Bryony Byrne.
Songs of the Wanderers at Sadler’s Wells, 4-7 May.