Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, UK; February 26, 2014
Basmati, wild, risotto, jasmine, sticky, indica, japonica, aromatic and glutinous. Rice is something that we take for granted, bagged up in serried ranks on supermarket shelves or scooped out of barrels in wholefood shops to be taken home as an accompaniment to other foodstuffs. But this humble grass seed is the staple diet of vast swathes of the world’s population and is garnered at the expense of acres of land and huge amounts of intensive labour.
Lin Hwai-min’s paean to the plant is no superficial tribute. It is obvious from the start that the dancers who embody the grain know the exact cost of its growth, extraction and preparation, for indeed they went to the fields, rising at 5am each morning and helped with the harvest. The mesmerising back projection of the rice’s journey from planting to smouldering stubble took two years to film and is an art work in itself. Who knew that rice could be so beautiful? The familiar paddy fields planted with the nascent crop soon give way to acres of waving rice grasses under a huge sky that trembles and sighs. Indeed, the back projection distracts a little initially from the dancers who bound onto the stage dressed in pastel colours and thump their heels rhythmically on the floor as they squat, flails in hand.
Two nearly naked dancers portray the fertilisation of the rice, then the red chaff that nods and waves in close up in the background is echoed in the dancer in the vibrant, dark red dress who curls and writhes her way to the climax of the movement and the fruition of the crop. Men walk oh so nobly across the stage with just the quivering staves of the flails clutched in their fists to betray their passing. Then it is time for threshing and the sinuous entwining gives way to a macho dance for the men that is part quarterstaff battle, part ballet. Staves are slapped on the ground and used as supports for the men to leap with bodies almost horizontal to the stage or as a stripling partner to reach ever greater heights as they vie with each other to winnow the chaff from the husks.
Then all is calm, bodies spiralling downwards as remains of the harvested crop shrivels and dies.
Classical folk tunes meld seamlessly with western operatic arias, oddly both suiting the subject perfectly. There is something elemental about the traditional music used that suggests work songs sung in fields and at harvest celebrations. Yet the familiar arias soar in a climax of emotion that befits the successful harvesting of the rice and the inevitable, melancholy of the dying of the year that follows. Only a supreme master such as Lin Hwai-min could accomplish this successful fusion without jarring and succeed he does in spades.