Arts: Dance: T'ai chi and dried rice

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The Independent Culture
A THIN stream of rice cascades continuously on to a lone man and looks like a dry variant of water torture. I worried that it might eventually bore a hole in his shiny bald head but he appears impervious, standing absolutely still for 80 minutes. He must be a Buddhist monk, with his robes and superhuman control. He gets my vote as star number one in Cloud Gate Dance Theatre's Songs of the Wanderers. And star number two is the rice - more than three tons of it, cleaned, dried, dyed gold and then dried again. During the performance it is poured, scooped, flung, and shaped in the hills and ridges of a desolate landscape.

Fourteen pilgrims, men and women, are embarked on a spiritual journey in which they agonise and flagellate themselves horribly, so that the monk's immobile serenity definitely appears as the goal they need to attain. They are prey to tumultuous distress, causing one woman to convulse on the ground and a man to flail in a mound of rice - the quagmire of his own misery. But in between this hyperactivity, the movement is so slow it almost seems to float, figures advancing imperceptibly as if frightened to disturb the surrounding air.

Call me suspicious, but the slowness lends an air of importance to what strikes me as a fairly basic premise and its vapid, repetitive elaboration. The piece, which was made five years ago, apparently takes inspiration from that boring cult book of the Sixties, Herman Hesse's oriental homily, Siddhartha, as well as drawing on religious thinking and practices of the East.

The cast apparently use t'ai chi and meditation as their warm-up before going on stage. Their choreographer and director, Lin Hwai-min, has a broad background, embracing both American and oriental dance. He founded the company in 1973 as Taiwan's first contemporary dance company; but he gave it the name, Cloud Gate, of a 5,000-year-old ritual dance.

In fact, any Western influence seems invisible in the staging of this piece, except for a sound accompaniment of Georgian folk songs, elegiac male solo voices backed by the soft hum of a chorus. The visual effects are undeniably stunning. The dancers carry pilgrim's sticks and compose group pictures as beautiful as a Chinese scroll painting. The careful lighting carves the space with evocative dusks and filtered rays; the procession of hand-held flames is an effective moment; the sudden thumping deluges of rice had me almost jumping out of my seat.

At curtain fall, it is unclear whether pilgrims find peace. But a resolution of sorts comes afterwards, when the house lights are up. A man with a hoe spends 10 minutes ritualistically raking a spiral pattern in the rice, now covering the whole stage surface. He is star number three of the evening. And if you can sit and ignore the chattering people around you, you will perhaps achieve the focused calm of the Buddhist monk.