Pilgrimage for body and soul
Young Brazilian choreographer Eduardo Fukushima spent a year with Lin Hwai-min at his famous Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in Taiwan and found himself harvesting rice and climbing mountains in a quest to build resilience and discipline.
By Deborah Jowitt
"My idea is that being a mentor is not a job; it’s really a tremendous obligation in our culture. I gave Eduardo a ticket to ‘Madama Butterfly’. I sent him to concerts and recitals. He has had classes with our musical director and English classes. Living in Taipei and around me has been a big cultural shock and he is not the yes, yes, obedient protégé that an Asian kid would be... But he has been learning and studying with great consistency. He and I share two things in common: we both came to dance late in our lives and work far away from the capitals of dance. We have to fight. With a discipline to study, plus determination and resilience, I believe he will work better and digest what he has learnt here after going back to Brazil."
Lin Hwai-minEduardo Fukushima sits on the floor of a small dance studio in Taipei City, compressing himself into an attentive bundle to hear his mentor, choreographer-writer Lin Hwai-min, comment on the progress that his protégé has made on a new solo. It’s December 2012, and, on 9 April 2013, the young Brazilian choreographer is to present the solo, Crooked Man, to an invited audience as a work-in-progress, along with an earlier piece. In October, as a finale to Fukushima’s year in the Rolex Arts Initiative, he will perform the piece in Venice.
However, as Lin remarked earlier in his apartment overlooking the Tamsui River, “From the very beginning, I have thought that my responsibility is to see him growing, instead of emphasizing that we should dish out a good work, or a better work, to show in Venice. That’s never been in my mind. But I need to force him for April and October so that we have an arena to talk, to communicate.”
At the session in the studio, Lin does most of the talking – and does it wonderfully – sensitive to both the young choreographer’s ego and the differences between the two men’s lives and choreographic concerns. Although Fukushima has left his native São Paulo, his friends and his family to live in an apartment around the corner from Lin’s and to take classes with members of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, the company that Lin founded in 1973, this mentorship is not one of a master talking to a disciple. Their concepts of dance are too far apart for that.
Lin’s immaculately designed group works for Cloud Gate are rooted in Taiwanese culture. They are lucid, yet enigmatic; fluid, yet strong; meditative, yet capable of explosion. Fukushima began focusing intently on choreography in 2007 and creates only solos for himself. These are rapid, insistent and highly repetitive. He embraces rawness and performs as if a punishing, urban world has invaded his body and is in disharmony with itself. He slams himself against the floor, pushes his head against a wall. The small theatres in which he usually appears become arenas for ordeal.
Fukushima has been fortunate to have his own studio for the period of his residency; it’s in the same building as his compact apartment. The space has a wooden floor; prints of three Degas sketches hang on the walls. On this December day, he begins the session with his mentor by performing the movements he has identified with Crooked Man
. The day before, he told me, “When I start each work, I don’t want to repeat the last one. I want to find some other ways to dance. I know that some things remain, but I try to discover a dance that I never danced before.”
The “little baby” of an idea that came to him in São Paulo has been steadily developing and growing. It is his practice to improvise on the material he has established, setting the piece at a later date. Hands curling into paws, angling arms and a sinuous torso seem to be motifs in Crooked Man
. The mood is introspective, but sometimes the dancer glances upward or at his surroundings. He never pauses. The basic, ticking pulse coming from the speaker is still to be layered into a more complex electronic score by the composer he works with in Brazil. He’s a compelling performer – that’s evident, as is the originality that fascinated Lin and made him choose Fukushima as a protégé. Lin hasn’t seen the work-in- progress for a while. “It’s wonderful that you are doing it so intensely,” he says, but also suggests that Fukushima think about becoming looser at times, relaxing, letting go. He points out that when the dancing is always at the same level, “after a while, we don’t see it”. The experiment
Fukushima has been following Lin’s suggestion that he try to perform the solo to different music. Now, as the Bach piano piece he has chosen plays, his movements yield slightly to its flow, and, as he continues, Lin calls out instructions that subtly alter the way he relates to the music. This experiment, Fukushima admits, has been hard. He’s used to starting a dance with “my music inside”. Yes, Lin says, but it’s his job as a mentor to create problems in order to provide new, possibly useful experiences. He emphasizes that a choreographer doesn’t have to follow music like a puppet. “Be cruel to it, go against it, go with it… You need good musicality to create music with your body. I’m happy to know that you are unhappy dancing to this music!”
Fukushima is used to working alone (and not always every day) in a bustling, pulsing, multi-ethnic city. It takes him about a year and a half to produce a solo, and he has to work at other jobs. Only recently have he and other young Brazilian dance artists been given some government support (his 2010 solo How to Overcome the Great Tiredness?
received an award). Lin, who was honoured with the prestigious Samuel H. Scripps Award from the American Dance Festival in July 2013, leads a world famous company of 24 dancers and also directs Cloud Gate 2
(which performs works by other choreographers). He sometimes wishes he could slow down, that he had more time to think: “I am one of the craziest, the busiest choreographers in the world!”
For Lin, “Being a mentor is not a job; it’s really a tremendous obligation in our culture.” The books, CDs and DVDs that fill his apartment are available to his protégé. “He is very generous,” says Fukushima; “each day that I go there, I look through his library and: ‘Mr Lin, may I take this?–Of course’.”
Lin sends him to concerts and recitals. Discovering that Fukushima doesn’t listen to classical music, Lin asked the company music director to give him classes. That’s in addition to his English language lessons. Lin also sent him to see his first opera, Madama Butterfly
(Fukushima was startled to find himself sitting in the presidential box, Lin’s usual seat). “Butterfly
is very beautiful,” he says, “lyrical, sad; it touched my heart. I can relate its history to my life a little bit, because it talks about Japan and America together. It was very important for me to see this.”
Fukushima’s family on his father’s side is Japanese, and he wants to understand his own Asian heritage more fully, which was one reason that he accepted Rolex’s invitation to apply for the mentorship. In São Paulo, he studied both a form of Japanese martial arts and Butoh, the transgressive postmodern dance form that developed in Japan during the 1960s.
Lin has hoped to open his protégé to new possibilities without endangering what is intriguing about the work, but also to push him to work in the studio every day (which Fukushima has been doing). Resilience and stamina are key words. After Fukushima’s first month in Taipei, Lin sent him to a national park in Hualien to hike into the mountains. it took him seven hours to reach the prescribed destination (where his mentor had a hostel room waiting for him). “He knows that in Brazil,” Fukushima says, “you have to fight to do something, so you have to have willpower.” Creative process
Fukushima has also been able to observe a creative process very different from his own. He, who researches only his own feelings and body in building a dance, went with Lin and the Cloud Gate dancers on a trip to the rice paddies of Chihshang in Eastern Taiwan. There they joined the farmers in harvesting the crop. Why? Lin is developing a new piece, Rice
, and he and his dancers (talk about stamina and resilience!) will draw movement material from their labours.
In Taiwan, Fukushima has been taking Cloud Gate’s classes in internal martial arts and in T’ai Chi Tao Yin, a form of Qi Gong that focuses on breathing exercises (he also embarked on Qi Gong classes elsewhere in Taipei).
On a Monday in December, Fukushima (who is “ah Du” to everyone here, because the first person from Cloud Gate whom he met upon arriving in Taipei found “Eduardo” too long) finds a spot in the circle surrounding the T’ai Chi Tao Yin master, Chen Ching-Yen. In the immense space, carved out within a former marble factory, the dancers – extremely slowly and in endlessly differing ways – fold their bodies and expand them. Twisting and leaning and spiralling, they bend so deeply that their buttocks touch their heels, then unwind and rise. And again. And again… Seated or standing, they move as if each breath were thick oil pouring through their bodies. It’s easy to see what Fukushima loves about this technique and how it may inspire him to allow a little more slowness and flexibility to enter his choreography.
Four months later, on 9 April 2013, an audience, including members of the news media, gather in Cloud Gate’s studio to see Fukushima perform Crooked Man
as a work-in-progress, followed by How to Overcome the Great Tiredness?
The choreographer’s introductory programme essay states that, “we are not symmetrical. We differ in character, and, with our diverging personalities, often find ourselves at odds with others and the world around us. We are rarely at ease in this world. We are always in search of something. We are never quite at peace.”
Lin reported via email that “Ah Du did well in the showing. He is calm and centred, with a touch of fluidity unseen in his previous works. He still needs to work on phrasing and contrast, but I am impressed by his new way of using his body. He has plenty of time to develop and finish the work for Venice in October.” Taiwanese television showed parts of the event, including shots of dancers rushing up to envelop Fukushima in a group hug after the performance, and mentor and protégé smiling widely, Lin’s arm around the younger choreographer.
The following day, as a kind of “graduation”, the two joined the thousands taking the annual Matsu Pilgrimage Walk – Lin for the first hours, Fukushima for four days. The pilgrims walk from 2 a.m. to 8 p.m. in honour of the sea goddess, Matsu. “The experience,” Fukushima wrote, “affected me very deeply. In some parts of the pilgrimage I could not go on, my body was so tired, I lost the sense of time, direction, I could no longer recognize myself... I also could realize that, when I hadn’t the power to go on, I found extra power inside of me and I could go further and further.”
One thing that Lin hoped his protégé would gain from the pilgrimage was increased resilience. When asked what he himself may have learnt from the mentorship experience, Lin summoned up the same word, “resilience”, to which he added “patience”, although he is happy with how hard and consistently Fukushima worked.
Fukushima sent an email too, saying that he was inspired by watching Lin at work, by their talks, by seeing how a large company is run, and by Lin’s choreography: “His work is a lot about Taiwan, this specific place, but he transforms the issues about this country into dance without clichés or stereotypes.” He thinks that, pushed by his mentor, he has gained skills that will be useful “when I start to make work with other dancers”.
Travelling with Cloud Gate to places new to him – including many in Taiwan, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and five cities in China – and going alone to Japan to become more familiar with his heritage, have made the world seem not as “big and impossible” as he had thought. He met people he would not otherwise have imagined meeting. Learning English made it easier for him to communicate with those in different countries.
Among the many things that Fukushima says he gained from his year as a Rolex protégé are these: “I really wanted to open my body to new information, and I believe that I got it.” And “I started to look at Brazil from another point of view.” And “I learnt to be my best friend.”
Deborah Jowitt is a New York-based author, teacher and choreographer.