Dance doyen Li Hwai-min's new work celebrates rice

Dance doyen and choreographer Lin Hwai-min, 67, is in a sunny mood. Or perhaps craving a bit of sunlight.

His first sentence over the telephone from Taipei in Taiwan is a cheery: "Send some sunshine to us from Singapore!"

A quick online weather check post-interview reveals that it has been raining in the home base of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, which Lin founded in 1973.

He and his critically acclaimed dance company will be returning to the Esplanade for a fourth time with Rice, a grand meditation on man's relationship with nature, set in the sprawling rice fields of Chihshang township, close to Taiwan's east coast.

Twenty-three dancers sway and tumble against sweeping video footage of the region - they channel the wind rippling across fields of rice stalks, or fire coursing through the fields as farmers prepare for the next season.

"Oh, Chihshang is just so amazing, so beautiful," Lin repeats this several times, his voice rising with emotion as he gushes about the environment that inspired the creation of Rice in 2013, for Cloud Gate's 40th anniversary.

The dance production will be presented at the Esplanade Theatre on Feb 28 and March 1.

Lin studied journalism at the University of Missouri in the United States in 1969 and later received a fellowship to the University of Iowa's prestigious International Writing Program, where he studied poetry under noted American poet Paul Engle. Lin speaks fluid, precise English that is at times deeply poetic.

He says of Chihshang: "It's one of very few places on the east coast that has space not disturbed by any rivers. It's immense. In the valley, it's just empty spaces of rice fields. It's surrounded by mountains. And clouds. Trees. Everywhere.

"And sometimes, clouds would climb over the mountaintops and slowly descend like waterfalls. Not drifting up. But just climbing down. It's very beautiful."

The farmers there, he says, care especially strongly for their land - they once protested when an electricity company wanted to set up electricity poles across their fields and eventually convinced the firm to have the electricity wired underground instead.

They also practise organic farming and their brand of rice is now exported across the European Union.

"Even now, in the evenings, in their meadows... not a sip of light, not a drop of light, was in vain." He breathes. "Oh, it's just beautiful."

Rice is not the first piece in which he has used rice as a motif. Legacy (1978) and Songs Of The Wanderers (1994) have both featured rice prominently.

In Songs Of The Wanderers, a shimmering, golden stream of rice rains down on a monk standing downstage for the entire duration of the performance and new landscapes are created from this torrential downpour.

Lin says: "I lived in a village when I was a kid and we would often go to the fields to see how the farmers were working. Rice fields and rice farming were just like air and sunshine in my life."

He mulls over this: "I never paid particular attention to all of this throughout my life. I just kept coming back to it, like a motif... I don't know why. If I can explain it clearly, then I wouldn't need to create a dance about it." He laughs.

The dancers even joined in the harvest as part of the creation and rehearsal process. Lin was surprised that many of his city-dwelling dancers had never truly encountered the land in such a way.

He laughs, saying: "It is not only kids in Singapore who don't have the experience, but also people in Taiwan. They have such a rich virtual experience of land, of mountains, but they've never really gone into the real thing. So it was important for them."

The work, like all of Lin's other pieces, is constantly evolving.

He recently replaced a Richard Strauss composition on the Rice soundtrack with one by Gustav Mahler.

He groans: "Oh, it never is ready, never. It's just people screaming at me that it's one month before the premiere, two weeks before the premiere, you better pull it together. Then I stop fumbling and package it for the theatre.

"We are never good enough, never good enough, even after 200 performances here and there, I touch up. I never get there... I think, always, everything can be done better. I don't know if that means I'm a perfectionist? I don't know."

One thing he is deeply proud of, however, is Cloud Gate's new home in Danshui, the Danshui Culture and Art Education Centre, seven years after a fire gutted their rehearsal studio.

More than 4,000 people, corporations and foundations contributed to raise funds for the new seven-storey complex, which cost US$21.6 million (S$29.2 million) and will include a 150-seat theatre, a 450-seat theatre, two rehearsal studios and an outdoor stage that can seat up to 2,000.

Lin declares: "We're going to work in our new space, opening a new chapter for the next half a century."

The Danshui centre was officially completed in November and the company cleared out their old office in Taipei's Fuxing North Road and moved into their new premises last month. The Taipei City government held a special ceremony to say goodbye to the iconic dance troupe.

Lin's aim is to have the space also be a platform for young artists and companies, whether from Taiwan or abroad, to showcase their works and to be artists in residence as they "polish their pieces to perfection".

He almost seems to be grinning on the other end of the line as he says: "So you see, I'm getting old... and when you get old, you learn other things about nature, about the land, about history... so that new complex is not built for me. It's for the younger generation, the generations to come. That's my intention."

corriet@sph.com.sg