Shen Yun Performing Arts lead dancer Diana Teng performs principal roles at venues including The Kennedy Center and the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. The legends she portrays take her back in time, across the globe, and through unexpected self-discovery.
US-born Diana Teng was the kind of California girl you’d find in Beach Boys songs. She lived in Pasadena, had sun-kissed skin, and peppered her speech with “dude,” “cool,” and “totally.” Forthright and confident, her laugh was and is as free as the Pacific Ocean. Despite her Far East heritage, she was as far West as West goes. But there are two sides to everything and, in her youth, sometimes Teng was impatient, rambunctious and thoughtless, she told Taste of Life in an exclusive interview.
Partly because it was the best way to bridle her insatiable energy, she took up ballet and piano. She was a natural. Her dance teacher encouraged her to go into the professional ballet track and try out for Julliard, while her mother saw a talent for piano in her that could have taken her to Carnegie Hall. But her well-spring of inborn ability found its greatest outlet somewhere else: in classical Chinese dance.
When Teng’s Chinese-born parents heard about the New York-based Fei Tian Academy of the Arts, whose rigorous training regime prepares most of the Shen Yun Performing Arts dancers, they dreamed of their daughter becoming a top classical Chinese dancer. Teng liked the idea too, and even though she was nervous, she applied and was accepted.
Yang suffers without Yin
Once at Fei Tian, most of the students looked just like her, but the carefree Californian couldn’t believe how differently they behaved. When she reacted to situations, her thoughts poured out, while her classmates would remain quiet and calm.
“When I arrived at Fei Tian, I just acted wildly. I shouted in the hallways, dozed off while studying, and I would escape to the restroom when I should have been exercising with everyone else.”
Remembering it, she smiles and shakes her head in disbelief. Although Teng had always had one foot in both cultures — she learned the basics about Chinese language and traditions from her parents — she had never encountered traditional culture on this level. To perform Chinese myths and legends on the world’s stages, she had a lot of brushing up to do, and not only in Chinese class.
“No one got mad at me,” she continues. “They stayed positive and always guided me patiently. Thinking about it now, I’m really grateful for everyone’s tolerance.” Teng fumbled at first, until she discovered: “Authentic Chinese culture is delicate and implicit. Deeply influenced by Confucianism, Chinese people are more introverted.”
Perfect practice makes perfect
Teng began to earnestly study the delicate beauty of her new art form. Since classical Chinese dance is more complex than other dance forms, she had to pay attention to details like never before.
“Every motion has to be very exact, more careful, more detailed or else the dance looks rough and not polished. Those articulate movements are how the rich inner meaning is expressed in classical Chinese dance,” she says. Fei Tian teachers say that to perform the complex movements properly, a dancer must fill herself with beautiful thoughts and dance with her whole heart.
“If the performer is too introverted, it’s hard to move the audience. Performers should open their hearts to them.” She adds, “It’s easier for a person with a cheerful and straightforward character like mine to do so. I guess it’s about finding a balance between the two.”
Soaring on two wings
A deeper knowledge of both cultures led Teng toward new reservoirs in her spirit and the discovery of subtlety. She became more considerate and introspective but didn’t lose her carefree self. Soon, Teng was chosen to tour with the professional dance company where her newfound traits shone on the world’s stage.
The subtlety she discovered proved invaluable. In a scene from the classic story Journey to the West, she played two different princesses: one, a genuine royal lady and the other, a demon disguised as the princess to seduce a monk. She said her movements in the two roles were different only by degrees. But sometimes the demon is in the details.
“In playing the demon princess, I had to act out her evil feelings. My movements were exaggerated and fast; my back was arched, and my fingers looked almost like claws.” She continues, “I portrayed the noble princess, on the other hand, through flowing movements and a sincere look in my eyes.”
Pearls of wisdom
Now Teng looks at the people she meets with ever-wiser eyes and tries to catch a glimpse into their souls through their mannerisms. She knows that looks can be deceiving; she’s been called a “banana” herself — yellow on the outside, white on the inside. But the same can’t be said anymore. Although she still peppered our conversation with “dude” and “totally,” she’s now fluent in all things Chinese.
When asked if she misses her wild, impulsive side, Teng says, “There’s an extreme to everything. If you’re always so free-spirited, you can never get things done. When people tend to not think before they act, everyone knows that people make mistakes like that.”
“Nowadays people are more open to ideas. It’s not totally crazy to say that classical Chinese culture is rich and worth learning about. A lot of times we have to look at the past to change the future. Trends nowadays always refer back to vintage or things that were also trendy back then, except with a little modern twist to them. So I think we always go back to history. Whether it’s fashion or architecture or anything, you know?”
And on that philosophical note, we left Teng to relish the relaxing atmosphere at her California home before heading back to New York for another season of Shen Yun Performing Arts.
Photography by Larry Dai.