Thu, Nov 09, 2017 - Page 13 News List

A history of Formosa in dance and words

Thirty-nine years after Lin Hwai-min’s groundbreaking “Legacy” told the story of Taiwan’s early Chinese settlers, he has created a new work that celebrates the multistoried, multicultural history of the island itself

By Diane Baker  /  Staff reporter

Lin Hwai-min’s newest work for Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, Formosa, premieres at the National Theater in Taipei on Nov. 24 for a 10-show run, followed by shows in Taichung and Kaoshiung.

Photo Courtesy of Liu Chen-hsiang

Words spill out of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (雲門舞集) artistic director Lin Hwai-min (林懷民) in torrents of energy, often faster than his dancers’ movements, but just as carefully calibrated. It does not matter if he is speaking Chinese or English, he rushes along, sometimes spinning off on a tangent, but always returning to his core ideas.

Words, especially in their written form, have been as important to Lin as dancing, even from childhood. Long before he founded the nation’s first professional modern dance troupe, he had made his name as a writer, and an author’s storytelling craft has often informed his choreography.

He had his first story published in a newspaper when he was 14, and his 1969 novel Cicada was a best-seller; ancient Chinese tales inspired his early dance works and his Cursive (行草) trilogy was inspired by Chinese calligraphy.

Words, in the shape of Chinese typescript, are the basis upon which he built his newest work, Formosa (關於島嶼): Characters form the backdrop and landscape of his story about the land, history and people of Taiwan, while a recitation — a selection of poems and excerpts of essays about the land and the people — by poet, calligrapher and painter Chiang Hsun (蔣勳) is part of the soundscape.

Thirty-nine years ago with Legacy (渡海), which many experts cite as the watershed production that shaped Taiwan’s contemporary dance scene, Lin told the story of the early Han Chinese settlers who crossed the “Black Water” — the Taiwan Strait — hundreds of years ago in search of a better life than the ones wracked by famine and wars they were leaving behind.

Formosa tells of those settlers, but the main focus is the island’s Aborigines, as well as the foreign soldiers and traders and others who came after them, all combining to form the multi-ethnic, multicultural island we know today. It is also a story of island shaped by tragedy, some man-made in the form of conquests and political ideology, others wrought by Mother Nature through typhoons and earthquakes.

Performance notes

WHAT: Formosa

WHEN: Nov. 24 to Dec. 3 (no show on Nov. 27), evenings at 7:45pm, Sunday matinees on Nov. 26 and Dec. 3 at 2:45pm

WHERE: National Theater (國家戲劇院), 21-1 Zhongshan S Rd, Taipei City (台北市中山南路21-1號)

ADMISSION: NT$500 to NT$2,500, available at NTCH box offices and Eslite bookstores, online at and at convenience store ticketing kiosks

ADDITIONAL PERFORMANCES: Dec. 8 and Dec. 9 at the National Taichung Theater, already sold out; Dec. 16 at 7:30pm and Dec. 17 at 2:30pm at Kaohsiung Cultural Center’s Chihteh Hall (高雄市文化中心至德堂), 67 Wufu 1st Rd, Kaohsiung (高雄市苓雅區五福一路67號); Dec. 22 and Dec. 23 at 7:30pm, Dec. 24 at 2:30pm at the Chiayi Performing Arts Center (嘉義縣表演藝術中心演藝廳), 265, Jianguo Rd Sec 2, Minsyong Township, Chiayi County (嘉義縣民雄鄉建國路二段265號); tickets NT$300 to NT2,000; available at the door, Eslite bookstores, online at and at convenience store ticketing kiosks

However, Formosa is far more abstract than Legacy, the storytelling not so linear.

In a telephone interview with Lin before he took his company on a six-city tour of China last month, Lin said that with Formosa he was not trying to talk about Taiwan as a news report, editorial or philosophy.

Formosa is just a metaphor for an island haunted by earthquakes, typhoons and international fights… the material is grown from the land, but it’s not about land, it’s about everywhere,” Lin said.

“There is an epigram from the Diamond Sutra: All things contrived are like dream, illusion, bubble, shadow; and as dewdrop or lighting. They should be regarded as such,” Lin said. “I have had that in the back of my mind all my life.”

The show starts with whiteness and ends with emptiness, he said.

“The first characters are projected as a subtitle for Mr Chiang’s recitation for a few minutes, then they go on their own way,” he said. “First the poem, the characters are seen afterwards,” he added.

Asked why he decided have Chinese characters play such a key role in the new work, given that he had explored Chinese calligraphy in his Cursive trilogy, he said it was because “words communicate … but they become blurred with the passage of time. Records of history could be erased, rewritten.”

Often the characters used in the projections are the names of animals, villages, rivers and places in Taiwan, “but they are mostly broken. Tam (淡) here, shui (水) over there,” he said, referring to a district of New Taipei City. “They are broken, painted for landscape … made abstract pictures to evoke memories of ancient writing.”

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