Cloud Gate avengers: the band of elastic superheroes who transformed Taiwan

Lin Hwai-min has spent 46 years tackling revolt, repression and rice in his fast-changing homeland. Now he is handing over his dance-theatre juggernaut to a former slipper seller

It’s a hot, humid evening and I’m sitting on the ground with around 50,000 other people, all about to watch Cloud Gate Dance Theatre give its annual outdoor performance in Taipei. The atmosphere in Liberty Plaza is extraordinary. I can’t think of another dance company in the world that could draw so large and so festive a crowd. Most of the audience have brought picnics, many enduring a day of rainstorms to bag a position close to the stage. Yet, although this is a special performance – one of the last before Cloud Gate’s founding director Lin Hwai-min steps down – such devotion has been normal for the company almost since it was formed.

Cloud Gate was named as the outstanding company at the British National Dance awards last year and is a headline attraction of the new Sadler’s Wells season. Lin’s success in turning a small experimental dance company into a national icon and international brand is a remarkable story. Now 71, with a fierce energy and a huge crinkled smile, Lin acknowledges that he had almost no experience of professional dance when he staged his first programme back in 1973, and discovered that he’d sold 3,000 tickets for just two shows. “I almost had a nervous breakdown,” he says. “I thought, ‘My god, now I have to learn how to choreograph.’”

In the south of Taiwan, where Lin grew up, there had been very little dance to see. At the age of five he fell in love with the film The Red Shoes but nine years later, when he took his first ballet class, it proved a huge disappointment: “I had a book, All You Need to Know About Ballet, and I could tell that the teacher wasn’t doing things correctly.” Already a precociously literary teenager, inspired by Hemingway, Fitzgerald and classical Chinese poetry, Lin focused his energies on becoming a writer. By the age of 22, he’d published his first collection of short stories and had been offered a fellowship at the International Writers’ Programme in Idaho.

Once he arrived in the US, though, contemporary dance grabbed his imagination. Lin was able to see the companies of Paul TaylorMerce Cunningham and José Limón – and take classes at the Martha Graham school. He even created his first work: a tortuously complicated piece, he now realises, about “a philosopher who dreams he becomes a butterfly”. When he returned to Taipei, he was by default the local expert on contemporary dance. With musicians, dancers and artists all curious to know more, he was persuaded to set up a company.

“I was stupid,” he says. “I was very young but I came from a generation who believed it was their duty to make a difference to the world.” The works Lin began to choreograph blended modern dance, classical ballet, Chinese folk dance and Chinese opera, grounded in the silken stillness of tai chi. They also drew on distinctively Taiwanese subject matter: Portrait of the Families addressed the massacre of political and intellectual dissidents under Chiang Kai-shek; the pastoral masterpiece Rice evoked the rhythms and landscape of rural Taiwan.

This choice of local subject matter was radical in itself: during the 28 years of Chiang’s regime, as well the Japanese rule that preceded it, the island’s language and culture had been brutally repressed. When Lin created his 1978 work Legacy, about early Taiwanese settlers, he had to stage the premiere in the south of the island, far away from the National Security Bureau in Taipei.


Mentor … Lin Hwai-min, left, with Cheng Tsung-lung. Photograph: Liu Chen-hsiang

But as challenging as those early years were, Lin says: “It is wonderful to be an artist here. In 1987, we ended martial law. In 1996, we had our first direct presidential election. Now we have a woman president and we have legalised gay marriage.” It matters profoundly to him that he has been an instrument for change, helping to found a flourishing dance department at the National Arts University and using a second company, Cloud Gate 2, to bring dance classes and performance to impoverished regions of Taiwan.

The love he’s earned is palpable. Back in the early 90s, when he tried to shuck off the exhausting burden of Cloud Gate, Lin was shamed into returning by a reproachful taxi driver, who said to him: “There is hardship in every profession, Mr Lin. It is hard for me to earn a living in the traffic of Taipei. But we need Cloud Gate. So drive on.”

In 2008, when the company’s rehearsal base was destroyed by a fire, Lin did not have to ask for help in building a new home: more than 4,000 people spontaneously sent donations, including one small boy who offered all of his pocket money. While others might cling on to such love, Lin is adamant that he’s “simply looking after a public property”: his final gift to Cloud Gate will be to step down at the end of this year having created as smooth a transition as possible for his successor.

Lin has been mentoring Cheng Tsung-lung for years, watching him develop as a dancer and choreographer, appointing him director of Cloud Gate 2 in 2014, but he’s delighted that Cheng is a very different artist from him. “I came from a family of poets and scholars but Tsung-lung came from mud,” he says. “I envy him that.” Lin points to that fact that, while his mother made him listen to Schubert and Beethoven after school, Cheng’s parents had him working the street markets from the age of eight, selling slippers made at his father’s factory.