2011 / 12月
Yang Lin-yuan /tr. by Scott Williams
Taiwanese choreographer Lin Mei-hong has been directing the Tanz-theater of Germany's Darm-stadt State Theater for eight years. In October 2011, her Bridal Makeup, a piece inspired by author Li Ang's Rouged Sacrifice, was named a finalist for Germany's prestigious Faust Prize, the first Darm-stadt State -Theater work to be so honored in 100 years.
A former student of the Lan Yang Dancers, Lin left Taiwan 30 years ago. In the decades since, she has made a name for herself in Europe based on the cross-cultural style of her work. Together with Lin Hwai-min, she has become one of the most important Taiwanese dancers on the international dance scene.
Adorned in a white wedding dress, the bride on the stage is stricken. The authorities have just sent word about her groom, and the news has pierced her to the core. Just wed, she is already a widow, a victim of political persecution. Dozens of distressed family members in black, clutching pictures of the deceased, black umbrellas, or flickering yellow water lanterns, march slowly onto the stage....
Lin's work offers a new take on an ill-starred mother's love and pain at a tragic moment in history. One foreign reviewer described it as "a poetic scene hammered out by a completely different culture. Lin casts off the harmony, restraint and reticence of Asia, incorporating European aesthetics and directness to have her dancers howl, giggle, and guffaw."
Lin worked on the piece for three years. Though her intent was to "speak for Taiwan," the work is more moving for not being bound by cultural or national borders.
Lin may be one of Germany's most important dancers, but it wasn't until last March that Taiwan had a chance to appreciate her work.
Having lived and worked in Europe for years, Lin recently brought her Swan Song to Taiwan. A duet consisting of six unrelated scenes, the work depicts the different faces of love. Ambiguous, poignant, and layered, it earned rave reviews from critics and audiences both in Taiwan and abroad.
Swan Song is based on Belgian author Georges Rodenbach's 1892 novel Bruges-la-Morte, and tells the story of a widower who has come to Bruges to recover from his loss. In the city, he meets and falls desperately in love with a young dancer who looks exactly like his dead wife. Unfortunately, his obsession with the deceased's image leads to endless grief.
Lin uses her dance to depict a protagonist trapped by the past and denying reality. The work draws on numerous European cultural symbols, such as a falling rope that has been used to toll a death knell and a nunnery where wealthy widows congregate, but Lin says her focus was on voicing universal sentiments.
"The point isn't in the story itself," she explains. "What I'm really interested in is people's inability to let go, in the kind of idea so powerful that it makes someone seek endlessly, even beyond death."
The original story, which takes place around the churches and along the canals of 19th-century Bruges, is filled with swans. Swans cry out with all their strength when death draws nigh, in a way emblematic of both the purity of the work and of an immutable love.
"I've always thought that you can't know happiness unless you've experienced pain," says Lin. "In the piece, I try to help the audience grasp the significance of happiness through humor, irony and innuendo."
Lin excels at using metaphor to express nuanced emotions and states of mind, leading the German media to dub her the "Ang Lee of dance."
"I love Ang Lee's work," says Lin. "We both come from an Asian cultural background, but interpret extremely Western things in Western settings. Ultimately, however, what we're doing is telling people's stories."
Lin, who turned 50 this year, was born in Luodong, Yilan County. Like many other Yilan girls of her generation, she was influenced by the contemporaneous Lan Yang Dancers and loved to dance. At the age of 10, she and her older sister joined Lan Yang, began to study dance, and were among the first group of troupe members to perform abroad.
When Lin was 16 years old, Lan Yang helped her apply for a scholarship. She got it and traveled to Italy, where she studied classical ballet at the National Academy of Dance in Rome. At first, she thought that ballet would be her life, but her thinking changed as graduation approached.
The key to her change of heart was an amazing performance of a piece by international dance maven Pina Bausch. Lin hadn't realized that by incorporating dramatic elements dance could be used to dissect human nature. Writhing limbs and twisting bodies could express deep-rooted emotions. Elements of modern art could be added to create a new art form that was closer to life.
Lin, for whom everything dance-related had so far come easily, encountered her first difficulties when she entered the Folk-wang University of the Arts in Essen.
Lin believed that she had been trained in ballet's greatest lineage and best techniques, and thought that studying with Bausch would further strengthen her technique. But her teacher wanted her to abandon a lifetime's training and start over from scratch. Lin didn't get that her teacher was pushing her to explore the purest, most primal emotions, and had a hard time adjusting to the method. But, as time went on, she began to get into the spirit of Tanz-theater. She cast aside her ballet techniques and began to dance with an aesthetic sense drawn from life.
At the time she graduated, she hadn't yet decided where to pursue her career and so returned to Taiwan to think on her next step. In 1999, she created a piece based on playwright You Yuan-keng's Ka-va-lan Princess. The story of a star-crossed love affair between the only daughter of the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea and the Turtle General was a local Yi-lan legend, and Lin's four-performance first run played to packed houses.
Two years later, Lin and her German husband decided after much consideration that Germany was the best place for them to pursue their mutual interests.
Lin's first German production trumpeted her talent. In 2003, she directed the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Ben Elton collaboration The Beautiful Game. Critics were astonished that a choreographer had directed a musical to such effect.
The piece tells the story of a priest who coaches a youth soccer team, and interweaves threads involving a -player's love affair with a young woman, political and religious violence, a young man's rise from obscurity to fame, and the difficult questions of loyalty confronting an athlete who is also a member of the IRA. Lin's version also offered a young woman's perspective.
Following the success of The Beautiful Game, Lin choreographed Jesus Christ Superstar for the Dom-Stufen-Festspiele organized every summer by the Theater Erfurt.
This 1971 rock opera by Lloyd Webber depicts the last week of Jesus' life. Famous for telling the story without dialogue, Jesus Christ Superstar is one of the most original musicals in the genre's history.
Lin had to do the entire show on a flight of 80 steps between two Er-furt churches, the Ma-rien-dom and the Se-ve-ri-kir-che, but the musical's rapid pace and 100-plus performers meant that scene and costume changes had to be quick. When the lights came up on the open-air stage, the entire audience caught its breath at the spectacle. Lin staged her Jesus Christ Superstar in 2005 and attracted thousands of people to each of its 14 performances.
Lin, who has spent 30 years of her life abroad, feels she is fortunate to be able to continue her creative career in Germany.
"Giving birth to each piece is as tough as having a baby," says Lin. She spent her first three years in Darmstadt forging her company's style and -building an audience. For opening nights, she would set aside her supervisory responsibilities and sit with the crowd. Seeing the piece anew from the audience's perspective, she could view it with a critical eye and identify areas that needed improvement.
Regardless of whether audiences and critics applaud her work, she believes that once the curtain falls an artist has to reflect in an effort to recapture the original concept he or she set out to express. "The artist is always his or her own harshest critic."
Lin loves to tell stories, and finds many of her creative inspirations in literature, film, and observations of everyday life. Having spent so much of her childhood performing abroad, she is still in the habit of traveling the world, and likes to sit in bus stations and airports to watch the play of emotions that accompanies each arrival and departure.
The stories she chooses to tell all tend to involve love that is in some way on the edge. Examples include the tale of a man's secret love for a friend's wife and the suffering he experiences as a result of never being able to give it expression; of a woman going to war in the Persian Gulf and worrying that she will die there; of a widower pining for his dead wife and searching for a medium to raise her spirit; and of a star-crossed lover who, prior to committing suicide, composes a letter to the "Juliet" he cannot marry.
After 27 years and innumerable works in Germany, Lin's career climbed to new heights in 2006 when the German theater association declared her their "artist of the year." This year, her work reached the shortlist for Germany's highest arts award, the Faust Prize.
Though steeped in traditional dance from childhood, trained in classical ballet, and ultimately baptized in modern Tanz-theater, Lin has always felt that going into dance was not a conscious choice. "Dance chose me," she says. "I didn't choose dance." Doors just happened to open before her, leading her further inside.
"The arts are lonely and isolating," she says. "There are joys and difficulties at every stage of your career." She believes that art requires being true to yourself and offers an unbridled freedom.
Li Ang, who knows Lin well, once asked her if she was able to express her Tai-wan-ese-ness in European dance theater.
Lin answered: "I don't need to stress my Tai-wan-ese-ness. The culture is in my blood."
Li says that Tanz-theater combines numerous elements, including lighting, costumes, sets and movement, but that projecting emotions through the dance itself is perhaps the most important. As a female choreographer, Lin's dance possesses a humor and a feminine vision of space that people find very appealing. In Hotel du Nord, phantoms pace the hotel's environs, black handkerchiefs over their faces. It's both very "Asian" and very "Taiwanese." "Mei-hong would like to be a conduit linking young Taiwanese dancers to European dance theater," says Li. "Her company currently includes a dancer from the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre."
Lin sees herself as a hybrid of traditional dancer, modern dancer, and classical ballerina, but one who has never strayed from her pursuit of her dreams. And she's still on their trail.