Taiwanese choreographer Lin Lee-chen and her Legend Lin Dance Theatre are noted at home and overseas for their large-scale works that reflect the culture of Taiwan, inspired by rituals, rites and the rhythms of nature. A major new documentary explores her life and work. David Mead takes a look.
Singing Chen’s (陳芯宜) first encounter with the work Lin Lee-chen (林麗珍) came in 2000 when she watched her company, Legend Lin Dance Theatre (無垢舞蹈劇場), in the premiere of Hymne aux Fleurs qui Passent (Anthem to the Fading Flowers, 花神祭). She admits to being completely drawn to every scene despite being sat in the cheaper seats at the top of Taipei’s National Theater. Later, when the opportunity arose to make a short film about Lin, Chen leapt at the chance. But that first short film wasn’t enough. She quickly found she wanted and needed to delve deeper, to find out the origin of Lin’s creations and to learn more about her and her creative process.
The result is The Walkers (行者), a presentation of, and reflection on, the story of Lin and her company. As might be expected, the documentary film explores the origins and aesthetic concerns of the meditative and ritualistic dance Lin is known for today and that has become a favourite at international festivals, but it’s far more than that. It’s a portrait of the woman herself; a portrait that digs deeply into the artist, getting at the true essence of the woman, revealing her whole philosophy of life and dance.
Chen often lets the film speak for itself. When commentary is used, she lets Lin tell her story in her own words. Along the way there are occasional insights from her dancers and contributions from her keen horticulturalist husband, sometimes light-hearted, and with whom she is seen tending flowers and shrubs.
The Walkers takes the viewer on a journey from the founding of Legend Lin in 1995, through Miroirs de Vie (Mirrors of Life, 醮), premiered the same year; Hymne aux Fleurs qui Passent; and Song of Pensive Beholding (觀, 2009). But as it shows, to understand her approach to dance you need to go back much further than that.
Born in 1950, Lin talks about her childhood and how her experiences shaped her. She was one of six children, raised solely by their mother after her father died when she was young. She’s not averse to telling the odd humorous story, such as how she tried to avoid being seen by her classmates while selling at small stands in local alleys. Memories come flooding back as she revisits one exact site.
Lin tells us that her first encounter with dance was seeing the Paul Taylor Company visit Taiwan. She talked about how she started to dance at school in Keelung, and how she talked her way into a dance competition, and did rather well. One senses a quiet satisfaction with her early dance achievements.
The most interesting dance footage is grainy film from her early days, when her dance looked rather more modernist and certainly different to today. Those early productions certainly revealed the breadth of her creativity, though. And given what followed, could there have been a more appropriate title for a piece that Who am I? in 1982? For it was after that piece that she took a sabbatical from dance to care for and enjoy seeing her young son grow up. But as she admits, it was in those years that, unconsciously, her future dance was taking shape. It was a time when she rediscovered her own childhood memories and cultural background.
There is plenty of footage of Lin’s dance in rehearsal and performance; dance that calls for the performers to move largely at a very slow, measured pace, as it transports the viewer into a mythical world. She often appears calm and thoughtful, yet she is clearly a demanding teacher and choreographer. More than once she is seen making her point quite forcibly. But she obviously also cares deeply about those she works with. We see them laugh and cry together. She is very much the mother figure of the close-knit family that is her company. One reason, no doubt, why dancers tend to stay with her a long time.
Indeed, the idea that Legend Lin is no ordinary dance company comes across time and again. Lin says, “We come to the human world, to do a job, a kind of mission, this mission is set in the DNA.” For her it is clear, dance is not so much a job as a way of life.
Lin and her dancers are seen escaping the confines of the studio for the natural Taiwan landscape, notably in Yangminshan National Park, where Hymne aux Fleurs qui Passent took shape, and on the seashore, sometimes relaxing at play, sometimes in costume taking the dance back to its roots. In these scenes, words are not needed. The connection between dance, choreographer, dancers and nature comes through strongly on its own.
Lin’s work has strong religious and ritualistic overtones. Indeed, the title of the documentary comes from the annual Matsu pilgrimage, when people follow when follow Matsu palanquin for nine days leading up to the goddess’ birthday towards the end of April; a walk that we see Lin and her dancers undertake. And although her beliefs are clear, they are seen more as an everyday fact of life rather than anything special, as if life, art and religion are all part of the everyday, and all inseparable.
Mixed in with Lin’s story are asides about her view on choreography and creativity, which she describes as “like emancipating the soul.” She is wonderfully self-deprecating. Referring to one of her early dances she says, “I don’t know if it was creativity, I was just playing.” And looking back, she observes that her work, when placed in the context of the universe, “is no more than a grain of sand. It leaves no trace.”
In speeches that followed a short ceremony before the screening, a clearly nervous Lin said, “It is a thrill to meet the final work after ten years.” Chen said it was an honour to work with Lin and the dancers and present their work. She called the film a “duet”, not only her work.
Indeed, Chen considers The Walkers an offering rather than a creation. She lays out Lin’s story and philosophy beautifully, never forcing it, always allowing time for it to soak in. She says that making documentaries about artists is a way to seek answers to her life’s fundamental questions and to look at how people should lead their lives. She clearly has great affinity with Lin’s approach, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the film and Lin’s dance seem such perfect bedfellows. It does flag a little in the last twenty minutes or so, when the focus moves to Lin’s son, but the rest of it, unhurried and poetic, is quite compelling. Just like Lin’s choreography.
Director: Singing Chen
Running time: 148 minutes
In Chinese with English subtitles