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Rice is to Taiwan as _______ is to America

When we think of what defines nationality, we tend to think language, politics, the various components of culture. We generally don’t think about agriculture, at least not here in America. Our birth coincided with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and a move away from the farms.

Quick: Think of a national cuisine, a national dish. Apple pie? The hamburger? Does “fast food” count as cuisine? What is this country's food identity?

Last night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan presented a work called “Rice,” which is about what it says it is. For more than an hour (too long), images of the crop sprouting through the seasons were projected onstage as the dancers – alternatively solid like soil or lithe like a blade of grass – mirrored the titular grain’s characteristics and lifecycle.

This ode to rice makes sense for a culture for whom it is such a potent symbol – not just of cuisine, but of history, continuity and resilience. In the last 15 or 20 minutes of the performance, the projected images were of fields on fire, a demonstration of slash-and-burn farming, or stubble burning, which paves the way for the new seeds but has gone out of fashion given its negative environmental impact.

Nevertheless, the fire, when paired with more aggressive music and movement, seemed to speak also to Taiwan’s contentious political history, particularly in the 20th century. When the new rice sprouts again, and a dancer stands tall and defiant at the end, it’s clearly about more than a blossoming granule.

It also made me think about what the equivalent edible symbol would be, coming from America. Could a dance about, say, cotton represent the trajectory of our nation? Well yes – a certain, dark period of it. What about wheat? Yes, that too – we are a country of serious cereal consumers.

But the crop that truly represents modern America is corn. The United States is the world’s leading producer of corn, according the Environmental Protection Agency, producing 32% of the world’s supply of which 80% is fed to livestock. It’s also heavily subsidized by the government and is the reason that McDonald’s hamburgers, and soda, are so cheap.

Is that the kind of crop to make a dance about? If we think of foundational grains as an honorable symbol of a country, a symbol of pride and sustenance, as Cloud Gate Dance Theatre does with rice, then corn – in its many sneaky, invisible guises and its detrimental impact on our collective health – seems wholly unworthy.

Just some food for thought.

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