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Flash Review 1, 11-2: Postures of Prayer
Cloud Gate's River of Rice

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2000 Maura Nguyen Donohue

Herman Hesse's enlightening, if Orientalist, novel "Siddhartha" served as inspiration for "Songs of the Wanderers" by Taiwan's Cloud Gate Dance Theater last night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Though one needn't be familiar with the 1922 novel written by the child and grandchild of missionaries to India, its exploration of the internal road to salvation is highly apparent in this steady meditative performance work by Cloud Gate's artistic director Lin Hwai-min.

"Songs of the Wanderers," also the Chinese translation of Hesse's novel, opens with a display of luminous beauty. A dropping stream of golden rice is slowly revealed with light from the top down until it appears to hover above the shaven head of Wang Rong-yu dressed in a monk's robe. Unlike Julie Tolentino's recent "Bottom Project" at The Kitchen, where she too was pelted with a deluge of rice, meditative is the mood here as Wang spends the remaining hour quietly enduring the rain of rice while maintaining a posture of prayer. In the novel, Siddhartha's life is a parallel to and variation on that of Buddha's. Where Buddha's shadow falls upon the entire literary work, his essence is visually captured in this performance by the constant presence of this peaceful monk.

"Songs" uses more than three tons of dried and dyed rice. We see a river of it slicing across the stage symbolizing the cyclical struggles of this life and its possible release into nirvana on the other side. The rice eventually covers the entire stage with dancers rolling, dropping and struggling on it before gloriously tossing it into Chang Tsan-tao's exquisite lighting design. The spectacle of showering, arcing and floating rice grains is breathtaking throughout the work and at many times seems to overpower the human figures on stage.

The highly internal focus of the work and the great stress on meditative practice both in the preparation and the performance of this work does not allow for much in the way of dynamic shift. Though it is obvious that these are highly skilled, well-trained dancers we are rarely given chance to see them engage in anything other than slow, evenly paced movement interrupted by all-too similar bursts of writhing and hair tossing. Soloists Lee Ching-chun and Wang Wei-ming both provide vibrant prayers that seem to be more protest than proselytizing. Wu Chun-hsien's post scripted (after bows) raking of the rice into a Zen garden spiral is a beautiful example of simplicity and focus. Shows continue with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30, and Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Howard Gilman Opera House.

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