On Saturday night, in what used to be — and will soon again be — known as the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, a free performance was given by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre.
One of Taiwan’s most successful and treasurable cultural exports, Cloud Gate has for many years offered free summer concerts around Taiwan.
This time, however, founder and artistic director Lin Hwai-min (林懷民) made special mention of the anniversary of the 921 Earthquake — the 10th anniversary.
His comments were followed by a minute’s silence, during which Lin asked for the audience of thousands to close their eyes and pray for the dead and the bereaved.
When the minute was up, the audience opened its eyes to see a lone woman on the stage, twirling in pain and confusion. The dancer continued this motion for an astonishing length of time. Always moving, her body was contorted and her expression changed from distress to horror to exhaustion.
The dance was called Requiem, and the performer was Dung Shu-fen (董淑芬). Those who had not seen this work before could have assumed that it was choreographed to represent and memorialize the terror and misery that befell the victims of Taiwan’s deadliest tremor in a lifetime.
It was, in fact, developed 20 years ago to mark the Tiananmen Square Massacre — a rare artistic acknowledgement in Taiwan at the time of that Chinese atrocity.
As Lin introduced the minute’s silence, he made tactful reference to instability — a hook that could have meant individual economic hardship, local political unease or even the violence in Xinjiang, depending on one’s perspective.
But Lin, a consummate showman and communicator, refused to drag the audience into a lecture on this or that incident or an extended revisiting of the night of Sept. 21, 1999.
Instead, he appealed to the common decency of his crowd, knowing that among them were people of every political description, ethnic background and religious persuasion.
This channeling of common decency allowed general repugnance toward the killings 20 years ago to blend with the sorrow over the deaths of more than 2,000 people 10 years ago, and the effect was powerful.
The crowd, assisted by a team of high school and university volunteers throughout the night, was as silent during that communal prayer as a crowd could be. In that silence, and in that heat, something remarkable and comforting could be felt: a sense of benevolent community and mutual respect on a scale rarely witnessed in secular contexts in this country.
Amid a media environment replete with cynicism and half-truths, the remarkable decency of ordinary Taiwanese is something that this politically fractured society can overlook all too easily.
Lin, who has done his best over the years to express the communal sorrow of both Taiwanese and Chinese, deserves credit and respect not only for presenting his troupe’s best face to a public gathering, but also for enriching them with a respectful and dignified reminder of their own humanity.