Theater archives

Writing on Air: Wild Cursive


To Western eyes, Chinese calligraphy appears precise, complex, guarded, and infused with meanings within meanings. The style known as Kuang Chao, or “Wild Cursive,” however, is less about communicating a message and more about freeing the spirit of the artist who practices it. Lines—now thick, now delicate—snake and dart and slash down a scroll; symbols bleed into others.

It’s auspicious that BAM opened its 75th-anniversary season with Lin Hwai-min’s Wild Cursive, performed by his Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. The piece’s blend of discipline and freedom, of meditative patience and suddenly unleashed power, connects ancient practice with modern innovation in exemplary ways, eschewing the explicit violence we so often see onstage today.

Wild Cursive (2005) completes a trilogy that the choreographer has been working on since 2001. As in Cursive and Cursive II, the dancers don’t imitate the shapes of the symbols, but embody the qualities of flow that make writing appear on a page. During the piece, seven long, white scrolls descend from above, rise, and drop down again in different combinations; sometimes only one or two appear. Markings on them become darker or paler as ink and water seep into them from containers above the stage. Jim Shum and Liang Chun-mei’s score studs long silences with the roar of wind or waves, foghorns, the cries of birds, the jangling of bells.

The company members have become even more fine-tuned than when I saw them perform one of the trilogy’s earlier parts in Cloud Gate’s airy studio in the hills edging Taipei. Wearing black costumes by Sammy Wang, the performers pour into and out of the space; their jumps pepper the air. They swish their arms into curlicues and figure eights, often leading with their elbows and letting their hands follow like tassels in a breeze. The image of tendrils slowly unfurling is beautifully clear in two solos—one by Chou Chang-ning early in the 70-minute work and a longer one by Wen Ching-ching at the end.

Lin punctuates the flow of movements with sudden stops in positions inspired by Tai Chi Tao Yin and other martial arts forms. The dynamic of strike and melt informs many passages, and deep lunges ground the more watery elaborations. Yet however powerful the kicks and implicitly adversarial the poses, Wild Cursive is peaceful. Like symbols on a page, the performers retain their own clear outlines, except in one moment when they form a big, seething clump. They don’t touch—not even in duets—but relate through design and intense focus. They’re rarely in unison, and near the end, when many (maybe all 20 of them) spill gradually onto the stage, cross it, and exit, they create a dual illusion: individuals making their wild, distinctive calligraphic shapes and a stage-filling wash of “writing” that colludes with sounds of the ocean. In one compelling section, the set and Chang Tsan-tao’s lighting design together create a silhouetted vision of women passing behind the scrolls in a procession without fixed destination, vanishing in the intervening spans of darkness.

Wild Cursive, like many more traditional Asian forms, unfolds slowly. You have to calm your breathing when you watch it. There are no immense contrasts, either in how the space is used or in terms of overall tempo. Watching it is almost like looking at an installation in a museum or vast plaza. True, we can’t roam through it, but our eyes can, and our thoughts. Sometimes we pick out individuals and movements—this man’s silky jump, the way a woman explodes into the air and seems to hang there for a second. At other times we see these accomplished people as dots and slashes marking the space the way ink marks a page—free-flowing yet controlled, legible but utterly mysterious.