Cloud Gate Dance Theatre's Rice, staged at the Esplanade Theatre on Saturday, is not the first of Taiwanese choreographer Lin Hwai-min's pieces inspired by the humble grain which fuels most of Asia. The stunning rice fields of Chih Shang, touted as the original rice township of Taiwan, have their own uplifting story of destruction and regeneration. The rice in these fields, much like the people who harvest it, is resilient and rich.
Lin parallels the life cycle of a rice grain to that of Man in this cyclical 70-minute long piece depicting the elemental forces at play. Howell Hao-jan Chang's breathtaking video footage alternates between close-ups of the ground and panoramic views of the tranquil landscape, bringing a fraction of its magnificence to our shores.
Rice opens with female dancers in a wide stance, rising on a measured intake of breath before driving their heels into the ground with an assertive stamp. They crouch over laboriously, as though trudging through the soil to loosen it.
Here, as in the rest of the piece, the movement vocabulary is typical of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre - it melds the severity of American modern dance choreographer Martha Graham with the agile aggression of Eastern martial arts. Lin also extends this East-meets-West idea to Rice's musical score, but the alternation of rousing drumbeats, lilting Hakka folk songs and operatic arias is jarring.
The large ensemble of 24 dancers adeptly move through passages of slow, spiraling potency interrupted by whirls of feverish activity. Arms extend like green shoots emerging from the earth, and Lin contrasts the elegant order of the rice crops with the flurry of the dancers' undulating limbs.
The pollination process is represented by a tender love-making duet between Huang Pei-hua and Tsai Ming-yuan, set to the fluttering vibrato of a soprano. The pair, bathed in the green-yellow hues of the rice plants, seem to be locked in their romantic rice-field rendezvous.
Rice's individual sections chart life's progression through birth, age, death and regeneration. The men enter with long bamboo sticks, threshing the ground for the harvest. A strikingly distorted female solo depicts the agony of childbirth. Clad in a crimson dress, Chou Chang-ning morphs her body into one awkward shape after the other, with exasperated outbreaths punctuating her movement.
Towards the end, Lin relies on rather typical tropes for loss and despair. The distant gaze, humped backs and dramatic falls to the ground grow tiresome after some repetition. But as the women pick up the men's sticks, leaning on them until they bend under the weight of their sorrow as they exit the stage, the dust of destruction is swept off to make way for new life.
Even as Rice leaves some gorgeous images in the memory, some of its slower sections tend to be overly drawn out. Lin's work is usually more impression than impetus, mood than momentum. Rice's sections possess much beauty, however they do not coalesce into a compelling whole.
Where: Esplanade Theatre
When: Sunday (March 1), 5pm
Admission: Tickets from $28 to $108 from Sistic (www.sistic.com.sg, tel: 6348-5555).