TAIPEI • A lunchtime bout of torrential rain, lightning and thunder could not keep a crowd of intrepid souls from lining up at Liberty Plaza last Saturday.
What were they waiting for? Not a rock concert. Not a soccer match. Remarkably, they were staking out a spot for a contemporary dance performance.
In Taiwan, contemporary dance is virtually synonymous with Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, a company that has a special place in the island's cultural life. There is a Cloud Gate Street in Taipei and Aug 21 is Cloud Gate Day.
The open-air show was a final bow for Lin Hwai-min, the company's founder, who was stepping down as the troupe's artistic director after 46 years. Like the company, he looms large in Taiwan's cultural life, as famous on the island as any movie or pop star.
Cloud Gate, which will now be run by Cheng Tsung-lung, director of the company's junior troupe, has long been an established presence on the international dance scene.
Dr Lin Ya-tin (no relation to Lin Hwai-min), an associate professor of dance at the Taipei National University of the Arts, said there was no professional contemporary dance troupe in the Chinese-speaking world when Lin Hwai-min founded Cloud Gate in 1973.
That was a moment when Taiwan was seeking its own cultural identity following 50 years of Japanese rule (1895-1945), after which it was ceded back to China.
In 1949, China's nationalist government lost control of mainland China and fled to Taiwan, establishing martial law.
"They made my parents' generation Japanese and they tried to make us Chinese," Lin said before the concert. "I didn't set out to reflect Taiwanese society, but when I started choreographing, I knew I wanted it to be something of our own."
What he came up with was a remarkable blend of Western and Eastern dance forms and aesthetics, fusing Martha Graham and other contemporary dance techniques with Chinese classical and folk dance and ballet.
In the 1990s, he would add martial arts, meditation, taiji and the breathing techniques of qigong to his dancers' regimens.
"When Lin founded Cloud Gate, Taiwan was still under martial law rule, with no recognition, knowledge, appetite and audience for dance of any kind," said Chien Wen-pin, executive and artistic director of Taiwan's new US$348 million (S$477 million) National Kaohsiung Centre for the Arts.
"The early success of Cloud Gate was indirectly responsible for the founding of Taiwan's National Theatre and Concert Hall and the National Symphony Orchestra nearly 15 years later.
"It is not an overstatement to say that Cloud Gate and Lin have created for Taiwan three generations of audiences for culture from square one."
Lin, 73, a charismatic man who looks preternaturally youthful, said he had wanted to be a dancer ever since seeing the classic ballet film The Red Shoes (1948) at age five.
His upper middle-class family "never took it seriously", he said, but when he published a short story at 14, he used the earnings to pay for ballet classes.
He studied journalism, published two books of short stories and won a fellowship for the University of Iowa's International Writing Programme. There, he began a course in dance, learning Graham and Doris Humphrey techniques, among others. "I spent more time at the barre than writing," he said.
He started to dabble in choreography soon after and attended two summer sessions at the Martha Graham School in New York. After finishing his degree in Iowa, he returned to Taiwan and began teaching in the English department at Chengchi University in Taipei.
But a dance department at another university heard about his experiences in the United States and asked him to teach.
"I was reluctant at first, but found I could offer a lot," he said. "The kids I taught wanted to perform, so we started Cloud Gate." (The company is named after an ancient Chinese ritual dance.)
Their first two performances sold more than 3,000 tickets. "It was a good story," Lin said. "A famous young writer had turned himself into a choreographer."
A good story, maybe, for everyone else, that is.
"I almost had a nervous breakdown," he said. "I thought, I'd better learn how to choreograph."
Frustrated by his generation's ignorance about its own history and traditions, he also decided to learn about Taiwan.
"I didn't know a thing about my own culture," he said. "I read our poetry, spent time at museums, went to see traditional opera", adding that he felt the company needed to connect to Taiwan.