Lin Hwai-min’s Water Stains on the Wall: A Cosmopolitical Perspective

Kin-Yan Szeto*


Water Stains on the Wall is a pivotal example that demonstrates the world-renowned Taiwanese choreographer Lin Hwai-min’s cosmopolitical perspective. This article examines the performance in the context of Lin’s other works and demonstrates how he contests our presumption and consumption of Otherness in the dancescape. Lin highlights the transformative power of calligraphic kinesthesia by engaging with and interrogating a hybrid synthesis of Eastern and Western embodied knowledge, and geo- and body-politics. Water Stains provides a cosmopolitical intervention beyond an Orientalist or globalist framework, as Lin questions the social, cultural, technological, and ideological resonances in today’s global circulation of projected images and desires.
Keywords: Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, Lin Hwai-min, kinesthesia, qi, cosmopolitical consciousness, cosmopolitics, Orientalism

The Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, founded by Lin Hwai-min, is dedicated to transforming Eastern and Western techniques into breathtaking kinesthetic expressions. In his last installment of a series of works inspired by Chinese calligraphy, Water Stains on the Wall, Lin provides a pivotal cosmopolitical intervention in the dancescape. In extension of Arjun Appadurai’s “scape” in transnational flows of cultures, I use the term “dancescape” to describe “an interconnected discourse of dance, a shared ground that extends beyond Eurocentric accounts that hold center stage, allowing cultural differences to occur in the narration of dance historiography” (Szeto “Calligraphic” 417). This article examines Water Stains on the Wall in the context of Lin’s other works, revealing a vibrant political and cultural agency associated with choreographing “Oriental” dancing bodies in the dancescape.

Lin Hwai-min (1947– ). Image: Rico Shen. Web/Creative Commons. Accessed 2 June 2021
A Cosmopolitical Consciousness

Lin is often considered the most influential choreographer from East Asia. After more than four decades of exploration, he officially retired at the end of 2019. He has received numerous prestigious awards outside of Taiwan, including the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters from the French Ministry of Culture in 2008, the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Movimentos Dance Prize in Germany, and the 2013 Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award for lifetime achievement, among others. Lin’s cosmopolitical perspective emerges from Taiwan’s unique sociopolitical background and his transnational experiences in the United States and other parts of the world.

Water Stains on the Wall, performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Choreographed by Lin Hwai-min. Brooklyn Academy of Music. Web/Youtube. Accessed 2 June 2021

Lin embodies and deploys a cosmopolitical perspective, defined by James Clifford as an issue of “[i]dentity . . . inescapably, about displacement and relocation, the experience of sustaining and mediating complex affiliations [and] multiple attachments” (“Mixed” 368–69). There is a distinction between cosmopolitanism and cosmopolitical perspectives. A subject can live in a cosmopolitan city, such as New York, Taipei, or Hong Kong, without necessarily being politicized in their sociocultural expressions. An artist’s cosmopolitical consciousness, as I have argued in my book The Martial Arts Cinema of the Chinese Diaspora, is a form of cross-cultural critical awareness that is not based on universalist cosmopolitanism; instead, such an awareness depends on cross-cultural and ideological engagements and geopolitical displacements in order to challenge, in Lin’s case, Chinese and Western dominant power structures.          

Accounts of Taiwan and its history have been greatly influenced by cultural and political ideologies, which have fluctuated radically over the years and under different regimes. Cloud Gate was established and grew in a Taiwanese society that faced the contestations of multiple political and social forces. Taiwan, located between the Pacific Ocean and the Asian Continent, has been a site of numerous colonial undertakings and diverse cultures meeting and interacting during the past four hundred years. Taiwan was under Japanese control for half a century (1895–1945), and after World War II, it was put under the control of the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT)-led government, before democratization began in the late 1980s. Today, the political status of Taiwan (also known as the Republic of China) is complex because the People’s Republic of China (PRC) claims its sovereignty.

“Taiwan, located between the Pacific Ocean and the Asian Continent, has been a site of numerous colonial undertakings and diverse cultures meeting and interacting during the past four hundred years.” Image: U.S. Department of State. Web. Accessed 2 June 2021

Once a well-known writer, Lin holds a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and later studied modern dance at the studios of Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham in New York, before returning to Taiwan and establishing the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in 1973. In his early career, Lin explored the integration of modern dance techniques and various Asian dance forms, including Chinese opera movement and Korean and Japanese classical court dance. The complicated political history and cross-cultural encounters in Taiwan’s past and Lin’s transnational experience result in a cosmopolitical perspective as a dance choreographer and performance artist.

Lin’s early works such as Legacy (1978), Nine Songs (1993), and Portrait of the Families (1997), among others, reflect the topics of Taiwanese culture, history and embodied memory in response to a variety of cultural and political influences, including the KMT’s Sinocentric nationalism, Western modernism, and Nativist Cultural Movement in Taiwan. For example, Legacy conveys “the image of a ‘Taiwanese body’ molded by an unbending spirit” (Chen, “Legacy” 122), as the production famously opened during a time when the United States announced that it would break relations with the government in Taipei and formally recognize the PRC as the sole legal government of China. Nine Songs interrogates a Chinese literary classic from a uniquely Taiwanese perspective.

Portrait demonstrates Lin’s critical reflection on the aspects of history and culture that were suppressed or marginalized by the KMT government’s official political discourse until the end of martial law in 1987. These works form the basis of Lin’s cosmopolitics as his experiences are imbricated with multiple social, cultural and geopolitical forces. Taiwanese dance scholar Yu-ling Chao notes that the evolution of ethno-cultural characteristics of the Cloud Gate repertoire exemplifies the “flows, exchanges, and in-between elements” of Taiwanese society (73). Chao points out this state of “double consciousness” in Taiwanese society and its mutation from mainland Chinese identity to a multicultural Taiwanese identity (73).

Moving beyond doubleness or thirdness, I propose that the multicultural nature and origin of Lin’s work—an engagement with Taiwanese indigenous, European, Japanese, American, Hakka, and various provincial mainland Chinese elements—is the basis for the emergence of his cosmopolitical perspective.

Nine Songs, performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Choreographed by Lin Hwai-min. Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Web/Youtube. Accessed 16 June 2021
Reviewing “Orientalism” in the Dancescape

The Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, which tours extensively throughout the continents of Europe, Asia, Australia, North America, and South America, has been a frequent guest at New York’s Next Wave Festival and has also performed at the Kennedy Center, the Sadler’s Wells Theatre and Barbican Centre in London, Deutsche Oper Berlin, and elsewhere.

The extensive touring of Cloud Gate places Lin’s creative sensibility in a transnational domain, which inevitably intersects and disrupts the historically and discursively determined aspects of Orientalism—what Edward Said referred to, in his publication in 1978, as a Western consciousness, “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction . . . for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (2–3). His analysis of Orientalism as a discourse of difference and an expression of power relationships was influenced by Michel Foucault’s discussion of knowledge and power (23–24). Such a persistent framework of analysis sees Orientals as inferior to Westerners, and in general not only as exotic, strange, and mysterious, but also sensual, irrational, and hypothetically dangerous.

There are some well-known criticisms or extensions of Said’s work. For example, Clifford notes that Said’s work “relapses into the essentializing modes it attacks and is ambivalently enmeshed in the totalizing habits of Western humanism” (“Orientalism” 219). Homi Bhabha makes a crucial intervention by extending beyond the binary, oppositional logic of Orientalism, into one of postcolonial ambivalence, hybridity, and heterogeneity of “Third Space” (37).

In the dancescape, it may still be the case that certain “Oriental” dancing bodies have continued to be conveniently interpreted, viewed, and objectified as Other. An Eastern spiritual practice or mysticism could be argued to look appealing to some Western audiences, thereby satisfying expectations—for some—of exotic Otherness. Such a desire further imbricates with how “Orientalism features prominently in modern dance history” (Wong, Contemporary 151). Yutian Wong notes that Ruth St. Denis, the early modern dance pioneer imagined Asian dances; Martha Graham, the commonly acknowledged founder of American modern dance, created seated spiral positions modeled after yoga; John Cage, a pioneer of indeterminacy in music formed his improvisational structures from ideas set forth in the I Ching and Zen Buddhism; Steve Paxton, a founding member of Judson Dance Theater, based contact improvisation technique in principles of gymnastics as well as Aikido. Susan Leigh Foster also points out how “white artists could continue to ‘experiment’ with an unmarked racial newness in form and meaning” from various enduring world forms (54–55). This “selective borrowing of the other” (Wong, Choreographing 51) fetishized the “Oriental” as a mode of training. The unacknowledged “invisibility of Orientalism in American modern and postmodern dance history poses a problem. . . . Such a history closes itself off to the complexities of U.S. Orientalism” (Wong, Choreographing 51).

Indeed, the evolution of Cloud Gate’s training practices since the 1990s, beginning with Songs of the Wanderers (1994), then inspired by a form of Daoist bodily practice, Tai chi dao yin, was transformed into the dance vocabularies in Moon Water (1998). These works have been hailed by scholars and critics as Lin’s “mature Eastern style” and “Eastern aesthetics”—based on Asian traditions, philosophy, and bodily practices (Lu 102; Chen, “First Investigation” 36). These practices are “counter-action” to the Western training that dominated Taiwanese modern dance (Lu 102; Chen, “First Investigation” 36). Instead of what Ya-ping Chen describes as “self Orientalizing” Chinese culture (“Journey” 108), Lin’s works interrogate a complex hybrid synthesis that questions “the unequal and uneven forces of cultural representation involved in the contest for political and social authority within the modern world order” (Bhabha 245).

Moon Water, performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Choreographed by Lin Hwai-min. Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Web/Facebook. Accessed 2 June 2021

Moving beyond the framework of Eastern body aesthetics, the company’s dance vocabulary in fact includes a blend of martial arts, meditation, Chinese opera, ballet, and modern dance as fundamental parts of the training regime. Further, in some of Lin’s works, he also embraces new media and technology in his choreography in order to transcend traditional boundaries in original and compelling ways.

This symbiosis of hybrid sources is the basis of the emergence of a cosmopolitical intervention to the contemporary dancescape. For instance, Western ballet has been influenced by the Cloud Gate dancers’ training in Tai chi dao yin, since their technique was introduced to the Zurich Ballet in 2004 and was further incorporated into examples such as Sally, a solo created for Sylvie Guillem as part of a collaboration with Akram Khan in Sacred Monsters (2006). Lin’s cosmopolitical consciousness encompasses an interplay among the notions of Otherness and in-betweenness with their coincidences and oppositions, due to Taiwan’s histories of colonialism and globalism; such consciousness, with its polysemic nature, places a wedge to fixed and stable identity-categories, and sometimes collides and colludes with not only Western but also Chinese dominant power structures.

Water Stains on the Wall

Water Stains premiered in Taipei in 2010 and was invited to be featured in New York’s Next Wave Festival in 2011. Unlike the Cursive trilogy (2001–05), it does not use dance to interpret the style and form of Chinese calligraphy as it historically evolved from standard script to wild cursive style. The Cursive trilogy distinguishes the corporeal from the verbal and linguistic but does not completely place the dancing body in binary opposition to text or language.

As I discussed in another context, in the Cursive trilogy, “Lin bridges the subject of calligraphy and the practice of body-mind integration of Tai chi dao yin in a poetics of calligraphic kinesthesia” (“Calligraphic” 422–23). On kinesthesia, Deidre Sklar relocates it in the sensorium regime in order to allow the possibility for “sensory locus for building an epistemology of movement” (87). Carrie Noland argues that kinesthesia opens up “a kinesthetic consciousness, reflecting on itself and thus defining—in harmony with social prescriptions or, in rare cases, against them—what a distinct kinesthetic sensation might come to mean” (139).

Water Stains focuses on the qi (commonly translated as vital force or energy) in shaping the traditional Chinese worldview in the arts such as calligraphy, painting, literature, opera and architecture. From a kinesthetic standpoint, qi cultivates a body that advances the psychosomatic life force of the practitioner. In comparing the theory of the body in Western and Asian philosophy, Yuasa Yasuo examines Descartes’ dualism and points out that the cultivation of qi is key to understanding Eastern non-dualistic worldviews (94). He delineates the concepts of qi in acupuncture, Buddhist and Daoist meditation, and the martial arts and proposes body-mind oneness—the interconnections between metaphysics, medical practice, and psychology—that can be achieved through self-cultivation (Yuasa 67, 74, 81, 90–91).

The title, Water Stains on the Wall, derives from a legendary conversation between two of the most respected Chinese calligraphers, Yan Zhenqing and Huaisu, in 722 A.D (Program). Water stains on the wall result from organic processes on an almost-evolutionary time scale; the phrase has persisted as a popular metaphor for the pursuit of excellence, specifically in Chinese calligraphy (BAMBill). Lin has been enchanted by the story of this conversation for years. He used the story to enrich the scope of the dance and at the same time to see if he could challenge himself to reach that aesthetic realm, where art is like nature (Program).

Water serves as an important metaphor to interpret the Daoist ideas of “the Way” (Dao) and effortless action (wu wei). Based on the Chinese philosopher Laozi:

Perfect mastery works like water:
A boon to every living creature, 
In adverse relation never;
At home where most cannot abide, 
Closest to the Way [Dao] it lies.

Dao 36

According to Daoist philosophy, water’s strength is its flexibility and potential to take new forms and to overthrow the powered; its openness to everything is close to the eternal cosmological process of the Way; its strength is its effortless action and transcendence of conscious striving. Laozi notes: “The Way is ever without acting [wu wei]” (Daodejing 177). In Water Stains, Lin explores with his dancers the potential of wu wei, when body and mind flow automatically, organically, and spontaneously from the self, without the need for thought or exertion.

The Daoist concept of emptiness (wu) (Laozi, A Translation 19) is rather different from the technical meaning for shunyata (Sanskrit)—commonly translated as emptiness—within Buddhism (Red Pine 7). As the Heart Sutra, the core scripture of Zen Buddhism, says: all “Five Skandhas”—the five sensual and mental continua of phenomenal form, perception, sensation, mental reaction, and consciousness that comprise the self—are illusory and therefore “empty of existence” (Red Pine 2). Lin points out the paradox that dance, as part of the phenomenal world (with phenomenal form and sensation), runs counter to the acceptance of illusion as emptiness in Buddhism (Lin, Master Sheng Yen, and Yueqing Chen 4–5).

What Lin highlights is that dance in its liveness as a performing art is ontologically concomitant with what Buddhism defines as the evanescence and ephemerality of this world. Water Stains interrogates the interconnections of the wu in Daoism, shunyata in Buddhism, and illusory fantasies of the Orient in the dancescape. To present Asian bodies in historically and discursively determined domains of the dancescape, Lin makes an intervention to enlighten us about our illusions and, by extension, our fantasies about the Orient.

In Water Stains, Lin deploys his transnational sensibility, knowledge, and engagement to negotiate the contradictions between visible Orientalism (the pre-determined knowledge of the “mystic” Orient in the dancescape), invisible Orientalism (the silenced, “mystic” Orient in the historiography of American modern and postmodern dance), and self-Orientalism (the internalized self-othering of the “Orient”), thus revealing his cosmopolitical intervention.

Kinesthetic Awareness

Water Stains highlights the philosophy of qi in Tai chi dao yin and wushu martial arts that Master Hsiung Wei and Master Hsu Chi have taught to Cloud Gate’s dancers since the 1990s. Lin further adapts Hsiung Wei’s Tai chi dao yin and its style of variations into dance. Tai chi dao yin is a variation of the Chinese martial art, Tai chi quan, and is a form of qi gong, which pares down traditional Tai chi practice to what Hsiung considers the twelve essential Tai chi exercises, based on the overall disciplines of Dao yin: dao to guide the vital force of qi through breathing and yin to guide the body.

Lin has remarked that many people have found similarities between the way Tai chi dao yin generates energy in a spiral route and the way Martha Graham used techniques of release and contraction (Lin and Szeto). But the distinctive feature lies in the fact that Cloud Gate’s dancers, guided by breathing, generate energy in a three-dimensional, spiral route in order for qi to flow smoothly. By balancing the flow of qi, guided by the origins of breathing, Water Stains further extends and integrates dancers’ cumulative knowledge of body and mind integration, including the synthesis of Eastern and Western aesthetics, as part of their embodied knowledge.

From the surface, the flexibility of Cloud Gate dancers’ movement shares some similarities with what Steve Paxton explored, through training such as Aikido and Tai chi, “particularly through the concept of ‘ki’ [qi] (in Eastern philosophy, the energy source from the earth manifested in the body) in doing improvisation” (Novack 100). When describing contact improvisation, Paxton says: “I think that if you touch something you can sense how it is based, you can sense the leverage potential in the thing” (Paxton and Bents 8). Hannah Yohalem comments on how Paxton’s approach “emphasizes the possibility of considering a partner’s body as a medium for one’s own movement, a means to engage gravity and other forces, thereby adding a utilitarian and individualistic layer on top of the dialogue between subjects” (48).

In these cases, both Paxton and Cloud Gate dancers allow bodywork to follow its flow (according to the guidance of qi) and involve kinesthetic awareness as an orientation of their movement. Qi, in the former case, is typically conceived in an individualist way and is portrayed as a state that requires a constant ramping up of interaction, challenge, or complexity, in which “‘I’ was contingent upon and a product of the ongoing contact between the two bodies” (Foster 117). The difference is that, according to traditional Chinese aesthetics and philosophy, the concept of qi extends beyond an individual’s kinesthetic awareness of “I” to an immersion and greater integration of human with the cosmos, as demonstrated in the works of Cloud Gate, including Water Stains.

The interpretation of the term qi is closely related to both Confucian and Daoist philosophies. “While Confucian philosophy reflected deeply on the harmonious unity of nature and humanity (tian ren he yi 天人合一), it was the Daoist tradition that sought to enact such a unity through non-discursive somatic practices” (Miller 241). According to Cloud Gate’s associate artistic director Ching-chun Lee (a former Cloud Gate dancer), the cultivation of qi is closely tied to breathing. Within a dancer’s body, the energy is configured and infused with qualitative, kinesthetic awareness, which is unique to the way individuals open themselves to immersion in the cosmos (Lee and Szeto). For a dancer, to be like water is to be open to their own experience of qi transformation that is analogous to the patterns of cosmic qi transformation. Therefore, what Water Stains demonstrates is not skill or challenge per se, but a state or stance of being, in which incessant effort and intentional striving are often profoundly counterproductive as a dancer or artist.


The opening sequence of Water Stains has an austere beauty. The entire cast of dancers stands barefoot on an empty white platform in the shape of an uneven pentagon. The use of a white stage floor resonates with White (2006)—a restaging of the Lin’s early work White (1998) with the addition of two new parts. Here, Lin purposely experiments with the potentials of kinesthesia that greatly differ from the Tai chi dao yin and wushu-informed movements seen in his previous works such as the Cursive trilogy and later in Water Stains.

Instead of performance on a typical levelled stage floor like that in White, Water Stains requires perfect mastery of balance and positioning on a tilted stage with an eight-degree inclination, with superb knowledge and command of the dancing body. Despite these differences between the two works, Cloud Gate dancers have cultivated a continuity in their approach to movement that is based on qi. Furthermore, by dehabitualizing the familiar ways of moving, Lin explores the potential of dancing as an artful encounter with imagination, expression, and transformation.  

White, performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Choreographed by Lin Hwai-min. Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Web/Youtube. Accessed 16 June 2021

The irregular, pentagonal, tilted platform, together with diverse dispersion of dancers, complicates the way a proscenium stage architectural setting would usually lend itself to a conventional viewpoint in the center. The sightlines continue to change during the performance depending on the path of dancing bodies on stage. The general relationship between dancer and audience in a rectangular arch frame is continually mediated and alienated from a perspective that is unique to Chinese painting. The result is similar to the perspective in a historical Chinese scroll painting: “the scroll had a continuous depiction of the scene that would have placed a central vanishing point at an absurd distance from most viewing locations, hidden for all but the most central region of the picture” (Tyler and Chen 375). Choreography on a slanted platform is composed so that movement can be viewed continuously.

Dancers come and go, sometimes along the top and bottom of the white platform, throughout the piece. All entrances and exits are locations where the choreography continuously evolves, like a scrolling painting, notably in slow processions that quietly fragment one way or another. The audience’s sightlines and the inclination of the stage allow the performance to be situated in a perspective slightly different from what the audience is likely to expect. This in turn challenges the expectations and comfort of both the dancers and the audience to the habitual way of engaging with proscenium stage performance. By integrating knowledge of both proscenium arch staging and visual perspectives embedded in Chinese painting, Water Stains requires both audience and dancers to be mindful of the arising and vanishing with regard to the subtle shifts in tempo, movement, sound, light and texture on stage. Through defamiliarization and dehabitualization, Water Stains challenges both the audience and dancers to break away from their presumed knowledge of perception and orientation of kinesthetic expression.

The Daoist idea of wu wei, which is based on “non-intrusive action” or “non-interfering action,” could expand artistic possibilities (Lai 256). However, once established as a condition, just like wild cursive calligraphy, the preconceived and habitual ways of moving, thinking, and effortless action can stifle creativity and free agency. In Water Stains, Lin requires dancers to continue exploring the potentials of mindfulness, causing “the hold of the habitus [to be] broken, inviting opening beyond routine” (Sklar 91).

According to the Grand Historian of ancient China, Sima Qian, the foundations of I Ching—heaven and earth, yin and yang, four seasons, and five phases (wood, water, fire, earth, and metal)—are based on everlasting transformation (64). In the dialogism of yin and yang, “each element of the counterpoints-and-counterparts (a) is mutually distinguished from each other, and (b) interchanges with and constitutes the other. And since they are mutually ‘counter,’ their togetherness is radically dynamic. [I]n aesthetic creativity not-doing is involved in doing . . . as Daoist ‘non-doing’ aptly describes” (Wu 239).

Lin’s approach avoids the imposition of “egocentric or anthropocentric norms” (Lai 256) in order to expand dancers’ kinesthetic awareness. Breaking the habitus, Water Stains delves into the body’s potential in articulating a wide range of integrated possibilities for motion. It cultivates qi as a state that opens an artist or dancer to unforced and incalculable naturalness (ziran). Just like water stains that appear on walls, qi—and its emptiness of preconception—is the key to a natural, organic, and fluid evolution for the creative process itself.


In Water Stains, all dancers are clad alike in translucent outfits. The males and females in Water Stains are dressed almost the same, which makes it hard to tell them apart in the piece, breaking conventional gender binaries. Any distinctions between male and female dance style are played down. The performance emphasizes the dancers’ inner focus and concentration—which is based on their breathing and the prevalence of qi. It is at times meditative and at times forceful. 

Audiences can see on the stage projected images of drifting clouds in different shades of black—like the different shades of ink in Chinese calligraphy and painting—become part of the choreography. Water Stains explores a primary duality principle of shi (materiality)—such as visible shades of ink—and xu (immateriality)—the “silence” and interval in space, sound and qi—in Chinese aesthetics. This dialogism invites multiple instead of linear perspectives in each scene of the dance and emphasizes the symbolism of the white platform as a giant sheet of rice paper in traditional Chinese calligraphy or painting, where the empty spaces—like qi between musical notes or breath-moment between movements—are as important as the shapes made by the ink.

The choreographer uses music from the internationally renowned contemporary Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa, who like Lin is well-versed in Eastern and Western aesthetics and cultures. Hosokawa is a prominent representative of the current generation of Japanese composers, and his music has received recognition in major venues throughout Europe, Asia, and North America. Much of the music Lin uses for Water Stains is a cross-cultural combination of Japanese traditional music and the compositional model of the German musical vanguard of the post-war period. Born in Japan and educated in Germany, Hosokawa has an artistic sensibility that is strongly rooted in both Eastern and Western traditions, which inspire his transcultural approach to music.

The seven movements, each accompanied by one of Hosokawa’s various compositions, include the inventive use of traditional instruments from Japanese imperial court music (gagaku) that instills the stage action with atmospheres ranging from serenity to mystery. In the beginning, with knees bent, the dancers start walking in place to a musical score entitled, Wie ein Atmen im Lichte (2002), which means “like a breath within the light.” The composer brings together two free-reed instruments, one from the West—the accordion—and the other from the East—the Japanese sho—which, produce sounds according to the same physical principle. Sho is a traditional Japanese wind instrument, sounding in the high registers. The accordion produces notes in low registers. The two free-reed instruments share the common characteristic that a player creates the desired sound through inhalation or exhalation. Hosokawa’s composition develops in duration between silence and timbre, like long breaths, constantly evolving and therefore intangible, like its form.

In unison, the dancers sway from side to side with their breathing audible on stage through the musical score. Dancers break away in singles, pairings and groups, transitioning into one dancer being left on stage. This dancer moves in circular, almost spiral movements, with qi originating from dantian (close to the navel imagined as the energetic center of the torso), driven by a grounding consciousness of gravity. We can see a projection of black ink on the white floor that mirrors the dancer’s own shadow. Such infinitesimal delicacy gives the audience an opportunity to study the dancer’s movements and their integration with the dancer’s breathing and the interval between musical notes—the foundation of the movement and sound vocabularies in Water Stains.

As the music of the first section fades out, Hosokawa’s composition titled Chinshi (“contemplation” in Japanese) from Seeds of Contemplation arises in between the dancers’ movements. This composition is wonderfully spare in its orchestration and musical phrases and fuses with the tempo of breathing from the previous section of the dance, with minimalist musical themes. The music merges together with dancers’ movements, forming a vastness that fills the space. Moving gracefully, the dancers demonstrate flow, effortlessness, and richness of energy that reminds us of similar experiences when viewing Chinese calligraphy and painting. 

Historically, the musical style of Japan’s gagaku was “imported largely from China and Korea as early as the 6th century and established as a court tradition by the 8th century” (Encyclopedia Britannica). Hosokawa’s various compositions include the

contemporary music elements of the end of the 20th century [which] offer the needed Entfremdung (= estrangement) for allowing the coexistence of such diverse domains of the traditional Japanese music . . . [They demand] a detailed understanding of many disciplines and a broad knowledge of many cultures by the composer, the performers, and last but not least, the public.

Lejeune Löffler 426

Several aspects of the work having a circular ebb and flow, breathing helps dancers to channel energy and bring out subtleties in movements. Water Stains is reminiscent of Lin’s other work, Cursive II (also known as Pine Smoke, 2003), which makes use of silence in John Cage’s music—which was inspired by Zen Buddhism—to explore the lyrically expressive grey tones of calligraphy, reminding us of the transposition of energy of the brushstrokes onto dancing bodies. In this dance, both choreographer and composer are inspired by Zen meditation, particularly the use of breathing, accomplished through stretching movements and sound, extending one’s perspective to the infinity of time and space.

Cursive II, performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Choreographed by Lin Hwai-min. Marquee. Web/Youtube. Accessed 2 June 2021

As stated by Hosokawa: “In my music breathing is very important—exhaling-inhaling. This is of the most significance in Zen meditation” (Hosokawa and Miró). Zen allows for a process of continued novelty by opening up the realm of what can be observed past one’s expected perceptions and preferences. According to Lee, the cultivation of qi is closely tied to breathing. She notes: “Like Zen, Hosokawa’s music is breathing. Dancers’ breathing corresponds to the same kind of inner concentration. They are not performing. Once you think you’re performing, you’re lost and do not get it” (Lee and Szeto).

Informed by traditional Japanese Noh theatre as an aesthetic model, as in the pervasive notion of ma or “emptiness” of space and time, Hosokawa combines the “breath” tempo, the silent space between chords, traditional musical gestures of gagaku, and contemporary compositional techniques. Richard B. Pilgrim points out the connections between ma and qi:“the interrelationships between ma and Buddhism, Taoism, and Shintoism only deepen and clarify the religious (if not aesthetic) character of this term [ma]. . . . [T]he ki (ch’i) [qi in Chinese] of kami’s presence or the nothingness-gnosis that liberates being, all affirm the cracks in the gate as the place of the light’s shining” (265–66).

Dance and music have close linkages in traditional Chinese and Japanese theatre and court dance. Music and dance share not only a unity in body and spirit, but also a demonstration of how body-mind integration can be a vessel to channel qi. The integration of breathing and silence disrupts linear narration as a continuous articulation and figuration. Moving beyond Japanese, Sinocentric and Chinese diasporic frameworks, Lin further highlights the transformative power of calligraphic kinesthesia in Water Stains. Unraveling the common ground between dance and music, in other words, provides a relentlessly mindful and fierce ambiance for the dancers’ exploration of the potentials of energy and qi in the dancescape.

Not only does Lin’s artistic trajectory parallel Hosokawa’s integration of Eastern and Western aesthetics, his dance also demonstrates a cosmopolitical intervention into the cultural and political forces operating in the dancescape. For some audiences, Lin’s use of Hosokawa’s music in Water Stains can be simply interpreted as an Oriental feature inspired by Zen Buddhism and shared by both artists from their Asian origins. Indeed, Lin’s use of Hosokawa’s modern interpretation of Japanese court music demonstrates multiple associations and identifications from various cultural origins.

In such a cosmopolitical stance, which integrates Eastern and Western aesthetics, Lin navigates the tension between these two aspects: mindfulness as an everyday practice and mindfulness as a performance. Furthermore, he probes the notion of a predetermined desire for a mysterious and alluring Oriental Other in the dancescape. As André Lepecki observes, “Lin had already sabotaged those pre-determined, if not over-determined, ‘knowledges’ that settle down meaning and the audience’s anxiety regarding contact with ‘otherness’” in ways that “the ‘exotic,’ ‘Eastern’ dance, was effectively destabilized” (38).

Spectacle in Motion

The dialogism of silence and action in both music and dance is demonstrated equally through dynamic contrasts where the music Atem-Lied, which means “song of breath,” creates a sound so much vaster than expected from a Western wind instrument. This time, the composer translates the unique breathing technique from the Japanese sho to the modern but uncommon bass flute, a Western instrument. The bass flute melody provides an interpretation of this theme with an ethereal quality that is accessible in both Eastern and Western soundscapes. Guided by qi instead of musical notes and melodies, dancers explore the kinesphere between notes and reveal that the limit of kinesthesia is infinity.

This section is a combination of chromatic and dissonant harmonies, evoking a compelling kinesphere that comes from silence and goes back to silence. Feet stomping on the floor become part of the sound during the periods of silence. Soon, projections of increasingly intensive shifting shadows transform the tilted platform into a giant reflective surface shimmering with changing shapes of black clouds. Dancers swivel and soar high on the slanted space with unbelievable ease, giving the illusion of clouds and water as their translucent, white outfits are frequently tinted by the projected images of drifting clouds in different shades of black. The overlapping of moving images and dancing bodies heightens the audience’s awareness of the accidental and indeterminate nature of the kinesthetic expression. At one point, one dancer stands almost static, close to downstage right. As the projections constantly pass over the dancer, the appearance of motion raises a question: is the dancer actually moving, or is what we see as motion only an illusion based on the ever-changing patterns of ink-shadow and light projected on the white platform? By blending and diluting the line between illusion and reality, between moving image and the moving bodies, this section questions the basis of our consumption of live performance.

In this performance, Cloud Gate explores the potentials of spectacle and visual media. Spectacle has been a major part of Taiwanese opera, temple festivals, and contemporary stage productions. In Taiwan, the use of media and technology on stage is not only both visually and sensually appealing, but it also reinterprets traditional theatre, dance, and bodily practice, which can be seen as alien and remote to contemporary Taiwanese audiences as it presumably seems to Western ones. Orientalism constructs cultural, spatial and visual mythologies that are often associated with geopolitical ideologies.

The influence of these mythologies has also impacted the formation of knowledge and the process of knowledge production in Taiwanese culture. In today’s context of commodity fetishism—in this case, “exotic” Otherness—the spectator-consumer relation to the Orient (whether conventional Orientalism or self-Orientalism) mediates a set of power relations in an immense accumulation of spectacle—rendering “the world of commodity ruling over all lived experience” (Debord 26). As I-Chun Wang points out, “the importance of spectacles and performance in Taiwanese culture [is] another example of how such activities obtain global presence.”

In Water Stains, Cloud Gate critically explores the spectacle aspects of both traditional performance and visual media in the dancescape. Are viewers experiencing a kinesthetic connection because the dancing body is moving? Or, is it the projected image in motion (the visual) that makes them believe that the dancing body is moving (the kinesthetic)? Is it the global circulation of the dialogism between the visual and the kinesthetic that makes the spectators presume they are having an authentic experience with an Other?

From a cosmopolitical perspective, while the response to Otherness as spectacle may vary, much of the spectacle’s power to attract or repulse originates from its ability to hold the gaze of the audience in the dancescape. At the same time, “dancing also foregrounded the production of kinesthetic experience, making it an important source for how the body and its movement are experienced in a given historical moment” (Foster 9). This yin and yang dialogism between the kinesthetic and the visual represents a multifaceted embodiment of tension between the force of opposites, a cosmopolitical perspective. Such a perspective navigates various temporalities and spatialities and destabilizes the audience’s deep-rooted expectation of viewing in a concert dance setting. This cross-cultural perspective also provokes the “inscrutable” nature of Otherness as spectacle in the dancescape, as the latter becomes more and more intangible before our eyes, diffusing and diffracting in our fantasy and illusion.

For the last section, Lin uses Ferne-Landschaft II, a composition for orchestra by Hosokawa. Here, the whole ensemble of dancers reappears on stage, like the symphony for Ferne-Landschaft II that involves musical instruments of an orchestra. Dancers move equally as often as one another while preventing the emphasis of any one of them; none of them retains singular focus. Their movement cycles between relaxation and alertness, lightness and speed, East and West. The dancers’ acceleration and exertion use the elastic force (jing) developed from martial arts training; fluidity and subtlety informed by Tai chi dao yin; and flexibility and direction informed by release-based techniques using a combination of qigong and modern dance practices. The usual calm, meditative and well-paced momentum in the beginning of Water Stains, to which the viewers have grown accustomed, is challenged by a continual process of estrangement throughout the performance. This final climactic moment of alienation forces us to reassess our engrained perception and judgment of Otherness. Just like our assumption of Zen-inspired meditative music and movement, our preconceived notion of “serene” Oriental dancing bodies is destabilized.

Finally, the dance ends with the implication of continued movement, not rest, as a dancer gradually walks off the stage. Light remains shining on a completely empty platform, staring back at the audience. I would argue, finally, that the power of the choreography lies in the shifts in attention it requires from the viewer. The performance ends with the white platform—a destabilized reflection of our desires—gazing back at the gaze of the distanced audience and critic.

Water Stains on the Wall, performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Choreographed by Lin Hwai-min. Brooklyn Academy of Music. Web/Youtube. Accessed 2 June 2021

Unsettling the pre-fabricated desires and presumed knowledge of Otherness in the dancescape, Water Stains interrogates the social, cultural, technological, and ideological resonances in today’s global circulation of projected images and desires. The project is no longer an attempt to restore a supposedly “true” Orient behind its discursive formation; it is an interrogation of our presumption and consumption of Otherness in the dancescape.

With embodied knowledge in geo- and body-politics, Water Stains on the Wall reveals how calligraphic kinesthesia in the form of qi continually brings forth and navigates the uneven power and temporal relationship between spectator and performer, the observer and the observed, the othering gaze and the “Oriental Other.” Positioned within the larger frameworks of Taiwan’s historical complexities and political realities, Water Stains provides a cosmopolitical inflection (literally meaning a “bending”) to promote a better understanding of Lin’s works beyond an Orientalist or globalist framework.

Through calligraphic kinesthesia, Lin demonstrates the moment-to-moment challenge to some of our and others’ inherent preconceptions. In turn, he addresses the relationship between past and present as a living, ever-changing experience: a kinesthetic embodiment with transformative potential for self-knowledge and freedom.


Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. U of Minnesota P, 1996.

BAMbill for Lin Hwai-min’s Water Stains on the Wall at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. New York, 2011.

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. Routledge, 1994.

Chao, Yu-ling. “Embodying Identity: Socio-cultural Significance of the Cloud Gate Dance Theater Repertoire in Taiwanese Society,” Zhang and Lin, 4-33.

Chen, Ya-ping. “First Investigation of Ten Year’s Development of the Eastern Body Aesthetics” [“Shi nian lai dong fang shen ti chu tan”]. Performing Arts Review, no. 52, 1997, pp. 36–41. 

—. “Journey into the East: Eastern Body Aesthetics and Orientalism in Taiwan’s Modern Dance.” The International Dance Conference: The Value of Dance in the Contemporary World, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Hong Kong Dance Alliance, Urban Council, and Provisional Regional Council, 1997, pp. 103–09.

—. “Legacy in the Context of the 1970s Nativist Cultural Movement in Taiwan.” Zhang and Lin, pp. 116–35.

Clifford, James. “Mixed Feelings.” Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation, edited by Pheng Cheah and Bruce Robbins, U of Minnesota P, 1998, pp. 368–69.

—. “Orientalism.” History and Theory, vol. 19, no. 2, 1980, pp. 204–23.

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Zone Books, 1994.

Encyclopedia Britannica. “Gagaku: Japanese Music.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online Academic Edition, 2015. Accessed 5 Jan. 2021.         

Foster, Susan Leigh. Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance. Routledge, 2011.

Hosokawa, Toshio, and Carme Miró. “Interview with Toshio Hosokawa.” Sonograma Magazine, 2 Jan. 2011, Accessed 12 Jan. 2021.

I Ching, or, Book of Changes. Translated by Richard Wilhelm and Cary F. Baynes. Princeton UP, 1977.

Lai, Karyn L.  “Conceptual Foundations for Environmental Ethics: A Daoist Perspective.” Environmental Ethics, vol. 25, 2003, pp. 247–66.

Laozi [Lao-tzu]. A Translation of Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching [Dao De Jing] and Wang Pi’s Commentary. Translated by Paul J. Lin. U of Michigan P, 1977.

—. Dao De Jing: The Book of The Way. Translated and commentary by Moss Roberts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

—. Daodejing. Translated by Edmund Ryden. Oxford UP, 2008.

Lee, Ching-chun, and Kin-Yan Szeto. Interview with the Associate Artistic Director of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan: Ching-chun Lee, Taipei, 27. Dec. 2019.

Lejeune Löffler, Marie-Raymonde, “Musical and Musicological Globalization from an European Perspective: Exemplified in the Works of Toshio Hosokawa.” Proceedings of the International Congress in Shizuoka 2002, Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, 2004, pp. 423–27.

Lepecki, André. “Postcolonialism, Interculturalism.” Ballett International/Tanz Aktuell, no. 1, Jan. 1996, pp. 37–40.

Lin, Hwai-min, and Kin-Yan Szeto. Interview with the Founder, Director, and Choreographer of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan: Lin Hwai-min, Taipei, 30 Dec. 2019.

Lin, Hwai-min, Master Sheng Yen, and Yueqing Chen. Dance and Zen [Wu zhong de chan ji]. Sheng Yen Education Foundation, 2009.

Lu, Chian-ying. “Wandering Along with Rice” [“Sui dao mi qu liu long”]. Cloud Gate Legend [Yu men chuan qi], Jingo, 2003, pp. 100–14. 

Miller, James. “Ecology, Aesthetics and Daoist Body Cultivation.” Environmental Philosophy in Asian Traditions and Thought, edited by J. Baird Callicott, and James McRae, State U of New York P, 2015, pp. 225–43.

Noland, Carrie. Agency and Embodiment: Performing Gestures/Producing Culture. Harvard UP, 2009. 

Novack, Cynthia J. Sharing the Dance: Contact Improvisation and American Culture. U of Wisconsin P, 1990.

Paxton, Steve, and Folkert Bents. “Contact Improvisation.” Theatre Papers, no. 5, 1981/82, pp. 3–27.

Pilgrim, Richard B. “Intervals (‘Ma’) in Space and Time: Foundations for a Religio-Aesthetic Paradigm in Japan.” History of Religions, vol. 25, no. 3, 1986, pp. 255–77.                                   

Program for Lin Hwai-min’s Songs of the Wanderers and Water Stains on the Wall at the National Theatre. Taipei, 2010.

Red Pine. The Heart Sutra: The Womb of Buddhas. Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004   

Sklar, Deidre. “Remembering Kinesthesia: An Inquiry into Embodied Cultural Knowledge.” Migrations of Gesture, edited by Carrie Noland and Sally Ann Ness, U of Minnesota P, 2018, pp. 83–111.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Pantheon Books, 1978.

Sima, Qian. “The Records of the Grand Historian” [“Shiji”]. An Encyclopedic History of Chinese Music and Dance [Zhongguo yue wu shi liao da dian], edited by Jingchen Sun, Shanghai Conservatory of Music Press, 2016, pp. 34–64.

Szeto, Kin-Yan. “Calligraphic Kinesthesia in the Dancescape: Lin Hwai-min’s Cosmopolitical Consciousness in the Cursive Trilogy.” Dance Chronicle, vol. 33, no. 3, 2010, pp. 414–41.                   

The Martial Arts Cinema of the Chinese Diaspora: Ang Lee, John Woo, and Jackie Chan in Hollywood. Southern Illinois UP, 2011.                                               

Tyler, Christopher, and Chien-Chung Chen. “Chinese Perspective as a Rational System: Relationship to Panofsky’s Symbolic Form.” Chinese Journal of Psychology, vol. 53 no. 4, 2011, pp. 371–91.

Wang, I-Chun. “Globalization and Theater Spectacles in Asia.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, vol. 15, no. 2, 2013. Accessed 4 May 2021.

Wong, Yutian. Choreographing Asian America. Wesleyan UP, 2010.

—. Contemporary Directions in Asian American Dance. U of Wisconsin P, 2016.

Wu, Kuang-Ming. “Chinese Aesthetics.” Understanding the Chinese Mind: The Philosophical Roots, edited by Robert E. Allinson, Oxford UP, 1989, pp. 236–64.

Yohalem, Hannah. “Displacing Vision: Contact Improvisation, Anarchy, and Empathy.” Dance Research Journal, vol. 50, no. 2, 2018, pp. 45–61.

Yuasa, Yasuo. “Qi’s Body-Mind Conceptions: Through Eastern Philosophical and Scientific Investigation and in Comparison with Western Perspectives” [“Qi zhi shen ti guan zai dong ya zhe xue yu ke xue zhong de tan tao ji qi yu xi yang de bi jiao kao cha”]. The Theory of Qi and the Conceptions of Body-Mind in Ancient Chinese Thoughts [Zhong guo gu dai si xiang zhong de qi lun ji shen ti guan], edited by Rubin Yang, translated by Ruirong Lu, Chuliu, 1993, pp. 63–99.

Zhang Zhong-yuan, and Yatin Lin, editors. Lin Hwai-min International Dance Conference Proceedings. National U of the Arts P, 2005. 

*Dr. Kin-Yan Szeto (Ph.D. Northwestern) is Professor of Theatre and Dance at Appalachian State University in the United States and author of The Martial Arts Cinema of the Chinese Diaspora. Her writings have appeared in Dance Chronicle, Oxford Bibliographies, The China Quarterly, Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, Visual Anthropology, Adaptation, Jump Cut, and elsewhere. She has also written chapters for edited volumes on film and performance studies. Szeto formerly served as board member of the Congress on Research in Dance and Dance Studies Association. In addition to her scholarly work, she is a stage director and choreographer.

Copyright © 2021 Kin-Yan Szeto
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

Creative Commons Attribution International License

This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email