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More Than Just a Theater
Date: 2016-07-01    
The theater was designed by architect Huang Sheng-yuan.

Home to Taiwan’s most celebrated dance company, the Cloud Gate Theater is a popular visitor attraction and vibrant cultural center.

Overlooking the Tamsui River, the elegant Cloud Gate Theater nestles into the hillside between Huwei Fort, built in 1886, and the almost century-old Taiwan Golf and Country Club. The main building, which officially opened to the public in April 2015, is surrounded by greenery and houses a state-of-the-art 450-seat theater, two studios that can be easily converted into black box theaters, and a third, smaller studio. The site also has a 1,500-capacity outdoor event space.

Located in New Taipei City’s Tamsui District, the multifunctional cultural complex is home to Cloud Gate, Taiwan’s leading dance company. It was born out of necessity after a 2008 blaze destroyed the troupe’s old rehearsal studio, archives and offices across the river in Bali District. Cloud Gate Culture and Arts Foundation Executive Director Yeh Wen-wen (葉芠芠) recalled that she and other senior Cloud Gate staff first visited what would become their new home, then an abandoned Central Radio Station facility, three days after the fire. “We’d looked at so many different sites. It was the last visit of that day,” she said. “We didn’t hope for too much, but the setting was beautiful. It was a bit like our old home.”

A rehearsal for the show “Moon Water”

While the two-story building needed a lot of renovation work, the company’s directors were impressed by the structure and surroundings. “It was almost like a miracle; high ceilings, no pillars,” said Cloud Gate Dance Theatre Artistic Director Lin Hwai-min (林懷民). “Wen-wen and I looked at each other in a way that said it all.”

Initially, Yeh explained, they simply intended to build a new rehearsal space, but after seeing the site in Tamsui decided to add a theater, an exhibition venue and enough archive, office and rehearsal space for the company’s two touring groups and support staff. “It’s the first time in our 40 years that Cloud Gate, Cloud Gate 2, and the administrative and technical staff have been together as one group,” she said. “The dream became very big.”

The next step was gaining permission to use the site. After lengthy discussions, Cloud Gate signed a build-operate-transfer contract with the New Taipei City Government that gives the modern dance company the right to renovate and manage the site for 40 years provided no public funds are involved. At the end of the term, the complex transfers back to the city.

Remarkably, there was no fundraising campaign to finance the project, though unsolicited donations soon started arriving, ranging from NT$100 (US$3) contributions from local schoolchildren to a US$5 million gift from the Chicago-based Alphawood Foundation. The names of all the donors are now carved into a wooden wall at the entrance to the theater, a reminder of the debt owed to supporters large and small. Paraphrasing Tennessee Williams, Lin said: “We really live on the mercy of strangers.”

Cloud Gate dancer Wang Yeu-kwn rehearses in the second floor studio.

Architectural Innovation

The Cloud Gate Theater has quickly become a visitor attraction in its own right. The main building was designed by celebrated architect Huang Sheng-yuan (黃聲遠), whose firm, Fieldoffice Architects, is based in northeastern Taiwan’s Yilan County. Yeh praised Huang for his ability to bridge the old and the new, both in design and materials.

Theater auditoriums are usually dark places, but Huang was keen to admit lots of natural light. The outcome is an innovative design that sees the stage backed by huge windows. “For rehearsals, we can open the back curtain and you see this beautiful golf course, and for performances you have the curtain down and everything becomes dark,” Yeh said. “With it up, it almost seems like you’re sitting outdoors.”

Some outside troupes who have staged shows at the theater have asked to perform with the curtain open so the audience can see their production in natural light. They might also see birds flying and people swinging golf clubs. But with the curtain up, performances have to possess much more power, Yeh noted. “You’re fighting against nature, and the outdoors is always more appealing,” she said.

Since the design called for a 450-seat theater, the building had to be tall. This brought with it the danger that the structure would dominate the landscape. To help make the building part of its surroundings, an additional 200 trees were planted around the site. “I wanted to erase the concrete, erase the steel, those hard things,” Lin said, adding that he loves the site best during summer, when the trees are all in leaf and hide the theater completely. “The space puts us in touch with nature and the ocean. It’s fabulous; the layers, the steps, the lawn, the cliff, and then far away there is the ocean.”

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre Artistic Director Lin Hwai-min, left, offers guidance during a rehearsal.

The oddly shaped roof invariably causes comment among visitors. Made from copper, it is already turning green and blending with the environment. “Some people say it’s a mushroom, some think it’s a UFO, and some say it’s a cloud,” Lin noted. Another notion is that it was designed to reflect the outline of Guanyinshan, or Mt. Guanyin, on the opposite side of the Tamsui River. “The architect never revealed its meaning,” Yeh said. “It’s whatever you want it to be.”

Center of Collaboration

The new theater is about more than Cloud Gate. The two Cloud Gate companies are on tour for between 150 and 200 days a year, during which time other groups are allowed to use the facilities to rehearse, perform and conduct technical tryouts. “It’s of benefit to both sides,” Yeh said. “We’re learning a lot about how to present different companies and how to collaborate with different artists.”

A Cloud Gate Art Makers Project has been launched using money from a prize Lin won last year, offering grants to creative talents younger than 35. Presently, the program is open only to dance presentations, but the plan is to extend it to theatrical works. “Choreographers will use the space for free, and we’re going to pay their dancers for rehearsals,” Lin explained.

While there is no formal mentoring, Cloud Gate’s artistic director said he is more than happy to observe and discuss work if asked. The choreographers may give a studio performance at the end of their time, but it is not compulsory. “We are not going to squeeze them or push them,” he emphasized.

The kind of spirit that saw Cloud Gate Dance Theatre and now Cloud Gate 2 perform on campuses and in rural areas across Taiwan is being carried on through the site. Art is for everyone, Lin stressed, adding he wants to transform the troupe’s new home into a cultural center for the community.

The main stage of the theater is backed by large windows, offering troupes the opportunity to rehearse and perform in natural light.

One of the ways the company is achieving this is by hosting a diverse variety of events and performances. Last fall, the Migration Music Festival, an annual gathering of folk musicians from around the world, moved to the site. And the Golden Bough Theatre performed its classic “Troy, Troy…Taiwan,” a modern drama rooted in traditional Taiwanese opera, at the site’s outdoor space.

Besides dance, indoor shows have included a six-hour comedy marathon from the Tainaner Ensemble; puppet theater by the Flying Group Theatre of Taiwan; and various concerts. Meanwhile, the ongoing Cloud Gate Forum series presents conversations with well-known figures. Upcoming speakers include documentary filmmaker Yang Li-chou (楊力州) and author Wu Ming-yi (吳明益).

Cultural Destination

Yeh admitted there was initially a concern that the location of the theater, which is over 20 kilometers from central Taipei, would put people off coming, but the site welcomed more than 80,000 visitors in its first 10 months. For performances, a free shuttle bus that people can sign up for online runs to and from Tamsui Metro Station. “That helps a lot,” she said.

Local musical group Trio Zilla performs at the Cloud Gate Theater.

There does not need to be a performance for people to visit the center, however. “There is no door. The grounds are always open,” Yeh said. Visitors can simply walk around the site, explore the bookstore or sample some of the delights in the cafe. Dotted around outside are sculptures by noted Taiwan artist Ju Ming (朱銘). Inside, a small gallery houses “In Between the Moments: Cloud Gate in a Photographer’s Memory,” a display of photographs by Liu Chen-hsiang (劉振祥).

The Cloud Gate Art Gallery hosts temporary exhibitions, with this summer’s being “Cut-outs and Alive” by Jam Wu (吳耿禎), a series of intricate large paper cut-outs. “I want to have things like this that are accessible to everyone,” Lin said. “We’re not going into avant-garde things.”

In discussing Yeh, his longtime colleague, Lin recalled that he “first met Wen-wen in 1983 when I started the dance department at what was then the National Institute of the Arts [now Taipei National University of the Arts]. I was looking for an assistant. I was impressed and hired her straight away. Over a cup of tea, I asked her, ‘What’s your dream?’ She said, ‘I’ve always wanted to have a theater.’ So after this place opened, during another meeting over another cup of tea, I said, ‘Wen-wen, you have your theater.’”

A statue on the grounds of the theater depicts Lo Man-fei, a famed Cloud Gate dancer and co-founder of Cloud Gate 2 who passed away in 2006.

The Cloud Gate Theater is much more than just a performance venue, however. “The four seasons are very clear here,” Yeh said. “In the springtime you hear the birds and smell the flowers; in the summer it is very hot, of course; and winter is freezing; but it’s always beautiful.”

Lin agreed, adding that it is “bigger, better and more beautiful than I ever expected.” But he emphasized what is most important is that it is a place for the future.

______________________________
David Mead is a dance critic, choreographer and teacher with a particular interest in Taiwan. He is the editor of SeeingDance.com and writes extensively for Dancing Times and other international publications.

 


Copyright © 2016 by David Mead

PHOTOS COURTESY OF LIU CHEN-HSIANG, WU CHIA-RONG AND CLOUD GATE CULTURE AND ARTS FOUNDATION


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