For several years choreographer Lin Hwai-min and his company, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, have been exploring Chinese calligraphy as a source for a trilogy of dance pieces. The latest, Wild Cursive, draws on “wild calligraphy,” in which the artist is freed of the set shapes of the characters. Wild calligraphy, the program notes explain, “exposes the spiritual state of the writer in its expressive abstraction.”
With such an inspiration, I could easily imagine a choreographer filling the stage with unrelieved prettiness, one sweeping arabesque after another. But Lin envisions wild calligraphy not as arranged beauty but as virtuoso struggle: each line on the paper, each sustained sequence of movement (broken off with a sudden stop, as if the calligrapher has just lifted the brush from the paper) is a victory of artistic integrity over the contrary forces of the world—distraction, gravity, grief, applause. Not that Wild Cursive isn’t beautiful: it’s breath-taking, with the dancers winding sinuously as the tentacles of a sea anemone or driving into explosive leaps like the attack of a cheetah. But beauty is a byproduct of Lin and his dancers’ fierce devotion to following the path of each breath. True to its inspiration, Wild Cursive shows no stories, no characters, no meaning. But its continual ambition evokes thousands of stories and situations. Marathon runners or mothers, we all project ourselves into the world, all feel the struggle to be true to what moves inside us.
Without virtuoso dancers Wild Cursive would lose the suspense, the high-wire act of each pathway through space. Luckily, Lin has plenty of virtuosos on hand. He deploys them at first in loose, seemingly incidental groupings, twos and threes, and then arranges them with increasing specificity, consolidating from the improvised look of the first half of the piece to decided choreography, even occasional unison, in the second half of the piece. Throughout, the dancers not only glide smoothly, hold exceptional balances in difficult positions, and leap high, but they maintain mindfulness about the movement phrase, so that the audience never loses track of the drama of the brush curving over the page. Even in unison the dancers don’t lose their individual sense of breath. The standing ovation was richly deserved.
Lin’s work is also supported by stunning design. The stage is bare, except for long scrolls of rice paper that lower from above, creating at times a spare trio, at other times a forest. So slowly that at first I couldn’t be sure it was happening, ink drips down, following curvilinear patterns in the crinkled paper as the dancers do in space. White lights illuminate the dancers flatly, highlighting their whirling limbs, and sometimes sharpen the dancers into silhouettes as they stand or move behind the paper scrolls. A spare score of wind, waves, percussion, and night-sounds acts as the meter the dancers move with or stunningly against.
At the end of Wild Cursive, when only one dancer is left on stage, her arms winding slowly and without pause as if the calligrapher is using up the leftover ink on her brush, two blades of black ink spill fiercely down the central scroll. In Lin’s brilliant view, the drive to be—for the artist, the drive to create—is unrepentant and unsatisfied, no matter what beauty it makes in its constant struggle.