Shen Yun dancer Angelina Liu speaks from the heart about her transformation through classical Chinese dance and the companionship of her new sisterhood.
The ambience spoke softly of peace and unruffled tranquility. Boasting high ceilings, tall glass windows, and traditional Chinese décor, the teahouse I sat in exuded elegance and timeless beauty. Then, as though the room had come to life, in walked the slender Angelina Liu, a young dancer who carries herself with the quintessential grace of the legendary Chinese figures she depicts in theatres around the world. But as we chatted, I discovered that her elegance was hard won.
Raised in sunny California, she was surrounded by the warmth of her friends, her older brother and family. But when her brother was accepted to Shen Yun Performing Arts in 2006, her family moved to New York. Not only did she lose the companionship of her brother, she said farewell to all of her friends on the West Coast. It was a lonely time for her. She became more reserved and shy, and it was not until she followed in her brother’s footsteps that she began to find her confidence again.
Training for life
When she joined Fei Tian Academy of the Arts, where most of the Shen Yun Performing Arts dancers receive their training, she admits she discovered unflattering habits she had never noticed before. “I am the youngest, so my parents spoiled me. When I first came here, I had a bad temper and was impolite even to the teachers.”
But it quickly became apparent that her training in dance became training for life, as she honed both skill and character together.
“During our daily training, we learned the fine details of each dance movement. The teacher would show us an improvement point one day, and we would practice it. The next day the teacher would show us another point. Bit by bit, we practiced every detailed movement to perfection,” a process that has made her more patient and good-natured.
Liu talks about her challenges and the people around her with kindness and humility. It’s difficult to imagine the girl she says she once was. She continues her story, helping me better understand the transformation she underwent at Fei Tian, where they follow a classical Chinese way of life.
“Change will not happen itself and needs a lot of effort and practice. Practice is not just about correct movements. If you practice 100 times every day, but none of them are right, then you won’t improve,” Liu says. “Think from your heart, find your shortcomings, then continuously correct yourself all the time.” Her journey illustrates the inseparable nature of the dancer and the dance.
A new home
Even though her journey as a dancer has been one of personally overcoming her limitations, Liu could not have done it alone. “We’re like a family of sisters. We all help each other improve.”
When she first started touring, she was nervous before every performance, worried that she would disrupt the perfect uniformity of all the dancers. “It was very difficult at the beginning, because I needed to make sure my movement and rhythm, distance and steps were right and went well with the dancers around me.” Her worries and doubts made her dancing rigid, and she was unable to synchronize. Her friends, her new sisters, helped her overcome her insecurities.
“I had a lot of burdens, and sometimes I would think too much and wasn’t confident. When others gave me advice, I thought it was very helpful. But I couldn’t do the same for others because I worried that I may be wrong and mislead them.” But with the continual encouragement and support of her peers, she let go of her fears and became less restrained.
She was able to harmonize more deeply with the group when she saw how devoted all the Shen Yun dancers were to reviving the 5,000 years of divine Chinese traditions. The beauty and brilliance of this culture must live within her, she thought, if she was going to be able to portray it onstage.
She explained how tightly the dancers work together. “Especially in dance dramas, we need to change clothes quickly between scenes. Last year there was a story about Nezha, with five to six different scenes during six minutes of dancing.”
Liu’s eyes sparkled as she told the story. “First I portrayed a girl who lived near the sea, and in the third scene I was a girl in the Dragon King’s palace. There was less than one minute to change into completely different hair accessories and costume, and I needed a lot of help. Most of the time, it’s the dancers who help each other change.”
With warmth and sincerity, she shares one of her most touching memories. “Once in a performance, the lead dancer had only 12 seconds to change her costume, but she accidentally scratched her arm and it bled. Everyone who could help came to help. We quickly put a bandage on the wound, helped her change costumes — and the performance went smoothly.”
The audience transforms
Angelina Liu’s innocence and wisdom, her struggles and grace, took me on a journey, perhaps similar to the changes the audience experiences during the course of a Shen Yun performance.
“At the beginning of the show, we can see the audience when the curtain opens. We can see some people looking aloof, annoyed or unhappy. By the end of the show, they look excited, happy and smiling.”
Her own insight and journey had now become clear to me: When you change yourself, she says, “you will find that every movement will shine with more and more beauty and light.”
Photography by Larry Dai