Without beginning or end, "Songs of the Wanderers" teaches that the key to life is in the journey, not the arrival. Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan brought its mystical and mythical 90-minute work to George Mason University's Center for the Arts Saturday evening for a performance dedicated to the Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue Team, which assisted Taiwan in the aftermath of the biggest earthquake on the island in 200 years.

Twenty-six years ago, Cloud Gate became the first modern dance company founded in a Chinese-speaking nation. Founder and Artistic Director Lin Hwai-Min has forged a group that melds Eastern and Western traditions; its current roster of 21 performers is adept in modern dance, ballet, tai chi and Chinese opera movement. For "Songs," a stark meditation on novelist Hermann Hesse's "Siddhartha," describing a quest for spiritual enlightenment, Lin crafted a series of arresting natural images to the accompaniment of Georgian folk songs.

Beginning with the figure of a monk who remains perfectly still throughout the performance as a stream of golden rice washes over his prayer-clasped hands into an ever-growing mound beneath him, "Songs" progresses as a pilgrimage of sorts. Groups of dancers clad in sacklike garments, bodies bent and tormented, grasp rugged staffs that help them lunge across the rice-covered space.

Prayerful moments battle with others of intense turmoil. The dancers' slow, meticulous steps evoke the pain of the unknown: Caught in an endless quest, they cannot break the cycle of wandering.

Throughout, a lone man rakes the fallen rice, pushing it into small mounds as he crosses and circles the stage, concentrating on his task long after the house lights come up. Conceptually, Lin's work should not end until the final patron leaves the theater, but theaters, being businesses, must ultimately turn out the lights and lock the doors.

CAPTION: A member of the Taiwanese company in "Songs of the Wanderers."