Taiwan has produced dozens of fine dancers over the years. Some have been able to carve out a professional life at home; some have gone abroad to pursue their dreams. A very talented few have gained fame dancing with internationally renowned companies. Lin Wen-chung (林文中), now 34, was about as unlikely a candidate for that last category as one could meet, at least as a child.
Lin was not someone who grew up wanting to be a dancer. He refused to take dance classes as a youngster because "dancing was for sissies," he said when we met in September when he was in Taipei performing at the National Theater with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.
Then there was the bacterial infection in his heart that developed shortly after he began his compulsory military service. That put him into the hospital for months and doctors ended up having to replace the infected valve with an artificial one. The ordeal got him out of the military early, but also left him wondering what to do for a career.
Lin was not totally unfamiliar with the world of dance growing up. After all, his mother Tsai Li-hua (蔡麗華) was a dancer/choreographer and founded the Taipei Folk Dance Theater (台北民族舞團) in 1988. She had repeatedly tried to get him interested in dancing as a child. But it wasn't until he saw Mikhail Baryshnikov in the 1985 film White Nights that he changed his mind about dance, especially men who dance.
But Lin was still more interested in theater and design. He wanted to go to the National Institute of the Arts (NIA) to study costume design, but the competition for spots in the theater department is tough.
"My mother suggested trying for the NIA dance department because it would be easier to get into and I could switch departments later," Lin said.
So what happened to change his mind?
"I don't remember. I don't know how I passed those five years … , they were so hard on me; most of my classmates had been dancing since they were three or five years old," he said, laughing. "After I entered school I never thought about it again. I don't know why. Maybe for me dancing at that time was so challenging, so much fun. It was almost impossible for me; it was just 'try another day, try another day.' I really didn't have the time to think too much."
Lin did realize, however, that he wanted make a career of dance. But first, after graduation from NIA, he had to do his two years of military service. Then he got sick and heart surgery appeared to end that dream. Lin was left at loose ends after getting out of the hospital.
"I went to interior design school for a few months because I though it would be impossible to dance professionally," Lin said. "But I always wanted to be a choreographer, more than to be a dancer."
His parents pushed him to go to the US for graduate school.
"After a few months at interior design school, my father [a professor of sports physiology] told me to go take the TOFEL, go get a [graduate] degree and then come back and be a professor," Lin said.
So Lin signed up at a TOFEL cram school by the Taipei Train Station, took the exam and applied for graduate school.
"I went to Utah … it's among the top three [dance schools] in the US. I didn't want New York or California because there are too many Chinese [students there] … . I wanted something different," Lin said.
"Utah offered us both scholarships," Lin said, referring to his then-girlfriend and now wife, a dancer with the Jose Limon Company.
He chose choreography as a major, but was still thinking about dancing himself.
He danced with the Repertory Dance Theater (the oldest dance repertory in the US) while he was in Utah part-time for six months and full-time for another six.
"It was good for a pre-professional," he said. "They dance a lot of styles.
So how did he end up spending six years with the Jones/Zane company? Lin was still in school in Utah when he first had the chance to see the troupe in action.
"I went to ADF [American Dance Festival] in 1999 … . Bill's company was performing there. Bill watched some classes … , he didn't make any promises," Lin said. "At Christmas, I went to NYC [New York City] to rehearse [with the troupe] ... see how the company fits me and what Bill could do for me."
"After a month I went back to Utah and I e-mailed Janet [Wong, the company's associate artistic director] to ask about a job. She offered a paid apprenticeship. I rehearsed with the company for one week but then I went to audition for Dance Works Rotterdam and got a job offer from them. I told Bill I wanted to go, but he hired me … , added me [to the company] even though he had 10 dancers already," Lin said.
Lin said he has no regrets about not going to Rotterdam, about choosing to stay in New York with the Jones/Zane company, although he admitted that his life would probably have ended up completely different - as well as his dance style.
"Every artist dreams of living in New York for a couple of years, to strive there, to see how you compete with the top artists. It's a must-go place, I think," he said.
"As a dancer, Bill really encourages personal voice … . For people who grew up in Asia that is a big difference with their tradition," he said. "My own choreography changed because of my time with Bill."
"[The question of] how to find movement has become more free. Most Taiwanese choreographers just use their training, their techniques - Martha Graham, Jose Limon, classical Chinese - to make movement. The way Bill defines movement is more intuitive than creative," Lin said. "He took me to another level."
"He has his own distinctive vocabulary, which influenced me a lot, but now I'm trying to get rid of that," Lin said as he started to laugh.
"You are always trying to find your own stuff. It will take me a while to get to another level," Lin said. "Modern dance is about thought, not about technique. If there is too much focus on technique then you lose the reason for dance."
If there was one thing the past six years with Jones/Zane company has taught him, it is the importance of staying true to yourself, to your passion; the importance of knowing who you are. For Lin, that meant learning to define what it meant to be a dancer, to be Taiwanese. Jones/Zane puts a lot of stress on roots.
Lin stayed in touch with his Taiwanese roots and Taiwan's dance scene while in the US. He has tried to come home every year for two months to see family and friends, as well as perform. He and his wife performed one of his pieces for the Duets program at the Experimental Theater at the National Theater this past spring, for example.
Now he is ready to spread his wings and build a career as a choreographer back home. His last performance with Jones/Zane company was this past week, in Iowa City, Iowa, in Blind Date, the show the company performed at the National Theater. Then it is back to Taipei to put the finishing touches on his new piece for Ping Hang's (平珩) Dance Forum Taipei's production Blink, which will be performed in Taipei on Dec. 12 and Dec. 13 at the Novel Hall.
"I choreographed a big piece on Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto Opus 35, and dedicated it to Bill," Lin said. "Nine dancers, 40 minutes. It's very physical, very challenging. You will never see anything like it in Taiwan again."
After that he wants to work on a full-length piece for next year, although he wouldn't say for whom. As for the future, he's not in a rush to build a big name or start his own company.
"I want to go piece by piece, at least for now, when I have no burdens. I think it's better to concentrate on the studio, to make good choreography, to make something that I really want. If you hire so many people [for a company], you can't be your real self," he said. "I think step-by-step is a better way."
"In Taiwan, the National Art Council evaluates your team every year, so you have to make a new product every year if you want funding … it becomes just like making shoes or clothes, it's just a product," he said. "But if the company is touring, you need to take time to refresh yourself [as an artist]. Like Bill, it takes two or three years to make one new piece.
"If I can't make every piece have a new meaning for me then I think I should stop and go to school to teach," he said. "I choreograph because I want to, not because I have to.