MOMENTS BEFORE the dancers of Taiwan's acclaimed Cloud Gate Dance Theatre begin their performance, the entire backstage area is briefly engulfed in silence. Instead of doing last-minute costume adjustments or make-up touches, the dancers are stock-still, meditating. Or, according to artistic director Lin Hwa-min, they 'clear their senses and balance their chi'. Call Lin a New Age guru, but he sees dance as the culmination of body and mind - and meditation has proven to bring out the best in his dancers. In fact, meditation is how the dancers of Cloud Gate start their day, followed by tai chi exercise. 'At first everyone didn't like it, but I didn't care,' says Lin, 57. 'I had tai chi masters come in to teach them. I want them to learn to use their chi energy to direct their movements.' And does Lin, regarded as one of Asia's most outstanding choreographers and responsible for putting Taiwan on the international modern dance circuit, engage in the same mind-easing exercise? 'No, I am too impatient for that,' he says with a wry smile. 'I make everyone else do it but not myself.' Lin is the first choreographer to bring this ancient Chinese practice to modern dance. Moon Water, Cloud Gate's much-acclaimed work, is an arresting combination of Eastern and Western aesthetics. Movements steeped in tai chi traditions are blended with music from Bach's Suites For Solo Cello. The stunning results, which Hong Kong audiences are soon to see for the first time, are where the future of Chinese modern dance lies. Since it premiered in 1998, Moon Water has been a phenomenal success from Europe to the United States. 'I am not concerned about particular movements any more, I am more interested in people's energy and the exchange of it,' Lin says. 'I think modern dance is about letting the audience sit and experience this kinetic energy.' Tai chi exercises are merely tools to help dancers think about lines and shapes, he says. 'But it's the energy inside I am looking for, the chi directs the movement.' Lin is amused that some tai chi masters he has worked with are baffled by the dancers. 'They come to tell me that it's beautiful, but the dancers are using all the wrong movements,' he says. Even before he began to incorporate tai chi into modern dance, Lin was breaking the mould. Yet for someone who's borne the weight of being the first Chinese to enter the Western realms of modern dance, Lin seems unburdened. We meet at a private function room during his visit to Hong Kong to promote Moon Water, and Lin possesses the vitality of someone half his age. 'I am always reminding myself that I am alive,' he declares, taking a drag of a Davidoff cigarette. 'But ageing is beautiful to me, this is the road I have chosen to walk and there is nothing I'd rather be doing.' He shifts his reed-thin body and jokes that it's great not to have 'dancer's muscles' any more. 'When I was dancing I had worked out so much that the muscles I developed made me feel like I was in a strait-jacket,' he says. 'This is so much more comfortable.' It was many years ago that Lin had the muscles required to make a living doing what he calls 'art' and what some others, at the time, considered a 'beggar's business'. When Lin opened the doors of Cloud Gate in Taipei in 1973, modern dance did not exist in Taiwan or any Chinese-speaking country. It was Lin who single-handedly built it into one of the world's most acclaimed troupes, on a par with any Western counterpart. His name is said in the same breath as dance luminaries such as Paul Taylor, Martha Graham and Pina Bausch, quite an achievement considering Lin achieved it almost exclusively with Chinese dancers, newcomers to the modern genre. But he says his success is due to more than simply artistic drive - it's the determination to survive. 'My parents were not rich,' says Lin, whose father was a civil servant. 'When they found out I wanted to be a dancer they just told me not to become a beggar. So this is why I worked so hard. I didn't want to starve and I also wanted to make sure all my dancers didn't become beggars.' The oldest of five children born in Taipei, Lin initially wanted to pursue his other passion - writing. In the 1960s, Lin got a scholarship to study journalism at the University of Missouri in the US. He was accepted in 1970 to pursue a masters of fine arts in creative writing at the University of Iowa. But it was the summers spent in New York, seeing dance performances and meeting members of the dance circle, that nurtured his love for the art form. 'I was really set on being a writer, and in the writing programme I met with a lot of very well-respected people from all over the world,' he says. 'I didn't expect to fall in love with modern dance.' But fall in love he did, in big cities such as Chicago and New York, which were rich nurturing grounds for modern dance companies. Lin recalls making his way to these places as a student, using extra money earned working as a cleaner and hotel busboy. 'I looked very young, so I always qualified for special fares for youth,' he says. 'But those seats were very limited and you'd have to go on a stand-by basis.' His trick was to make a reservation under a false name. 'On every flight there'd be a Mr Johnson who never showed up,' he says. 'It was a way of making sure the flights wouldn't be full and there would be room for stand-by passengers like me.' By the time he finished his MFA in 1972, journalism was the last thing on Lin's mind. He went to New York and studied briefly with Graham before heading back to his home to start Cloud Gate, which he named after a 5,000-year-old Chinese dance. He wanted to create a company where he could combine what he'd learned in the West with the Eastern philosophical principles he'd grown up with. When Cloud Gate held its first performance in Taipei in 1973, everyone was wondering who Lin was. 'They were very curious about me, they knew I was a writer,' he says. Curiosity brought 3,000 people to the show that night, and they were dazzled by how Lin took inspiration from Asian folklore and ritualistic dances, giving them a modern twist. But although critical acclaim came easily, financial support was a different matter. 'We were always in the red, we still are. It takes US$100,000 [HK$780,000] to run my company each month,' Lin says. 'In the beginning I did everything myself, from the fundraising to going out and putting up posters everywhere. You just have to do it.' Not everyone was supportive. 'Some shopowners didn't want our posters on their door. At first I was upset, but eventually it didn't bother me,' he says. 'I read in [renowned choreographer] George Balanchine's biography that even in his 60s, he would remain in the theatre to turn off the lights after the performance. If someone as great as Balanchine could do this for his art, what's a small little thing like me to complain?' His perseverance paid off. Cloud Gate began touring Europe and the US in the 80s and audiences were enraptured. Creatively, Lin often struggled for a breakthrough. 'I am a writer. It took me years to think visually instead of verbally,' he says. 'When I see a picture I actually read it.' That proved a minor setback. His venture into Buddhism, however, was what eventually led to his spiritual and creative enlightenment. In 1994, Lin, already a devout Buddhist, was driven to make a pilgrimage to Bodhgaya, India, where the Buddha received his enlightenment several thousand years ago. 'It was so strange, I just had to go. So I got on a plane to New Delhi and travelled on foot and by bus there with my backpack,' he says. One day, as he meditated under a tree, he suddenly felt a ray of sun cut through the leaves and branches and warm his forehead. 'It just touched me and something happened - I felt so free and there was no more fear,' he says. From that fearlessness came a creative rush and eventually the courage to put Bach's music and tai chi together. 'I was listening to one of my CDs of Bach in my house and it was a very slow and very heavy version,' he says. 'Then I thought of putting this music to use because its rhythm is like the slow breathing of tai chi.' Moon Water, after all, was inspired by a Buddhist proverb: 'Flowers in a mirror and moon on the water are both illusive.' This is also the ideal state of mind for tai chi practitioners, because energy flow is like water - it's illusive. Eventually, Moon Water became more than just a dance piece, it became a mental study by dancers of esoteric philosophy of what is real versus unreal, yin versus yang. Demand for Cloud Gate's presence overseas in prestigious events such as the Lyon Biennial Dance Festival, the Sydney 2000 Olympic Arts Festival and Next Wave Festival is proof that Lin's dance philosophy is on the right track. He says he has mellowed in his age. 'I don't scream at people any more,' he says, laughing. But being mellow doesn't mean laid-back. Lin continues to take the company on tour at least 10 weeks a year, and has formed Cloud Gate 2, a junior company to foster young dancers and, more importantly, keep the company as the artistic spearhead of Taiwan. 'Wherever we go, Taiwan goes with us,' Lin says. 'It makes me very happy when people say 'I know Taiwan, it's where Cloud Gate is from'.' Moon Water, May 3 and 4, 7.30pm. Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, Tsim Sha Tsui. Tickets $100 to $280 from Urbtix, tel: 2734 9009.