IT'S TAKEN LIN Hwai-min, artistic director of Taiwan's Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, five years to bring his latest work, Cursive III, to the stage. The final part of the so-called cursive trilogy fuses complicated calligraphy with contemporary choreography, and requires the dancers to be as wild and freewheeling as the brush strokes of kuang cao.
'Kuang cao is a free-form calligraphy style in which the spiritual expression is as important as the written characters,' says Cloud Gate founder Lin. 'Cursive III is a more demanding and difficult work. I had to wait until the dancers' bodies and minds were strong enough before I could tackle this piece.'
Cursive: A Trilogy - Cursive I, Cursive II and Cursive III - will be presented in its entirety at the Hong Kong Arts Festival this week, enabling audiences to chart Cloud Gate's growth in recent years. Lin started changing direction about a decade ago, with works such as Songs of the Wanderers (1994) and Moon Water (1998). Although much of the emphasis is on movement and visual aesthetics, they mark a departure from literary classics-inspired pieces such as The White Serpent (1975) and Dream of the Red Chamber (1983).
The Cursive trilogy takes this meditative and abstract era to a new height. Lin started the series in 2001. 'I've always been fascinated by the process of ink smoothly flowing onto misty white paper. I want to express the spirit of the ink and the energy of ink becoming words on the paper through the dancers. 'It's not just ink on paper,' says Lin. 'It's the traces of energy left by the writers as they write with brush pens.'
To prepare the dancers, the 58-year-old trained them in meditation, art appreciation, calligraphy, tai chi tao ying, qi gong and a variety of martial arts throughout the 1990s. 'Cloud Gate is always growing and developing,' says Lin. 'I waited a long time to do the Cursive series. I had to give my dancers time for their bodies and minds to mature.'
It took five years of training before Lin was convinced that the dancers had acquired the intuition and understanding to discern the energy behind the ancient calligraphy masterpieces.
Lin says that he's 'terrible' at calligraphy - but that didn't deter him from coming up with the series, which begins with xing cao ('calligraphy') and ends with kuang cao (wild calligraphy). The final part of the series premiered in Taipei last November.
The trilogy features music by Qu Xiaosong (Cursive I), John Cage (Cursive II), and Jim Shum and Liang Chun-mei (Cursive III). As for set design, images of ancient calligraphy were projected onto the stage's backdrop fro the first two pieces. But for the third instalment, Lin had other ideas. 'At first I thought we'd just splash some ink on paper,' he says with a laugh. 'What a disaster.'
To build a set that could effectively convey the themes, Lin spent 10 months looking for the right paper and ink. The former was sourced directly from a paper factory, which added more pulp to its usual mixture to provide a rougher texture. Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institute developed a special ink for the company that, when poured onto paper, stays ingrained while flowing in different directions to form shapes.
But it's not only set design that separates the three dance pieces. Cursive I is more 'serious and heavy', Lin says. 'It was our first attempt to create dance inspired by Chinese calligraphy. We wanted to stay true to the spirit of the art form. The dancers prance against images of ancient Chinese calligraphy masterpieces projected onto the background. And we commissioned a composer from China to do the score. Musically, I decided to go back to the basics by using natural sounds such as the ocean, breeze and the tinkling of bells.'
Cursive II is lighter and more delicate, and Cursive III is the most demanding technically. 'Kuang cao is the pinnacle of the calligraphy form,' says Lin. 'It's about breaking the rules and self-expression. I encouraged my dancers to let go of their dance vocabularies and explore the infinite possibilities of their bodies.'
Lim says his fascination with calligraphy - and the cursive trilogy - has helped him realise the essence of dance, not only in form but in spirit.
'Calligraphy represents the epitome of Chinese art,' he says. 'It's visual and verbal at the same time. In the western world, the words are simply phonetic. In the Chinese language system, the words are characters that evolve from drawings over thousands of years.
'Chinese characters are already a form of drawing. With calligraphy, Chinese characters are taken to a new level - they literally become paintings. All the Chinese masterpieces have calligraphy written on them as part of the art. Calligraphy is the totality of all Chinese aesthetics.'
Cursive: A Trilogy (three programmes: Cursive I, Cursive II and Cursive III), Wed to Feb 19, Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre, $150-$350. Inquiries: 2824 2430