Rice

Concept and choreography by Lin Hwai-min
Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan
Sadler’s Wells

Huang Pei-hua and Tsai Ming-yuan in Rice Credit: Liu Chen-hsiang
Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan in Rice Credit: Gia To
Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan in Rice Credit: Liu Chen-hsiang
Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan in Rice Credit: Liu Chen-hsiang
Huang Pei-hua and Tsai Ming-yuan in Rice Credit: Liu Chen-hsiang

A personal work of art, Rice is a collaborative production: film, sound, imagery and music lifting its choreography to heights above its station. Following the natural cycle of the cultivation of rice, two years in the making, more than a backcloth, the work of videographer Chang Hao-jan (Howell) is Rice’s anchoring point.

Stunning vistas of endless fields of rice, their green shoots swaying in soft eddies in the wind, close-ups of heavy grain on the stalk, and stubble burning, its smoke rising to meet the clouds on the mountain tops.

Lulu WL Lee’s lighting design reflects the film’s light on to the stage in mirror image, painting it in seasonal colours. I almost forget to watch the dancers, lost as they are in the vastness of the enthralling landscape, Ethan Wang’s projection and Lin Keh-hua’s set designs.

Lulled by a strange mix of music and soundscape featuring folksongs in Hakka, the oldest among the existing Chinese dialects, percussive thrums, and operatic arias from the West that guide us through the chapters of life—Soil, Wind, Pollen I and II, Sunlight, Grain, Fire, Water—I am completely captivated.

A chill wind blows across a soil sodden with grey water, and dancers enter one by one till a phalanx grows. Arms clutching bodies, they huddle and stamp their heels hard on the ground, that connection with the earth. Arms flail and mill.

Workers in the fields exposed to the elements become the elements themselves, they cluster and clump, become the grass, the warriors with bamboo sticks fending off the enemy.

And they plant the seed in the most erotic duet I’ve seen on the dance stage for a long time. Huang Pei-hua and Tsai Ming-yuan, in naked look body and bare buttocks, pollenate—to Saint-Saëns’ Le Rossignol et la Rose: the crucial source of life, sensual, reproductive, in stormy dramatic convulsive birth.

Bellini’s Casta Diva aria soars above the elemental forces in action. Romance tills the soil, and seeds burst to be harvested. Men thresh, beat the floor hard with bamboo sticks, vault over burning stubble crackling in the heat, fight in stick battle against each other and the forces of nature.

And it is over. Women, weary stooped women enter and pick up the fallen sticks. Stumble and fall. Rise and fall as Richard Strauss’s Im Abendrot is sung. Sunset, the end of the day.

The sticks become load-bearing yokes and ploughs, and the cycle begins again. The opening Hakka folksong is sung. And so it goes, as light from the paddy fields under water shimmers across the stage.

A paean to nature, Rice is inspired by the landscape of Chihshang in the East Rift Valley of Taiwan and its rebirth as ‘Land of Emperor Rice’ after adopting organic farming to restore it to health from years of chemical fertilization.

Rice as sustenance, as backbreaking livelihood (the dancers joined in harvesting the rice in Chihshang), as landscape, as lifecycle, Lin Hwai-min, as with Nine Songs, in his company’s fortieth anniversary year honours ‘the land that has nurtured’ him.

He says he ‘wanted to make the choreography simple and accessible’. And it is that. The dance language is not extensive, staying within the parameters of its martial arts inflected moves.

The farmers from the rice fields that stimulated the work were moved to tears, apparently, but its choreographer hopes it opens up the ‘imagination beyond rice’. My mind goes back to the Russian, Indian, Japanese and Chinese ‘art’ movies I saw in the 1960s.

Reviewer: Vera Liber