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Articles

How a girlhood love of legends paved the way for her own epic talent

Brett Price

Shen Yun Performing Arts dancer Shuting Zhou’s girlhood love for ancient Chinese music, costume and legends paved the way for her own epic talent.

 
When I dance, my mouth doesn’t speak, but in my heart, there is dialogue. ‘Sing the music with your movements,’ our teachers say. If my heart is peaceful and awake, the most challenging dances aren’t hard. — Shuting Zhou, dancer with Shen Yun Performing Arts
 

New Zealand’s best classical Chinese dancers were all there, auditioning for Fei Tian Academy, dreaming about launching a career with the illustrious Shen Yun Performing Arts. One bright-looking girl in the studio hallway, Shuting Zhou, could barely contain her wonderment for ancient Chinese culture: dance, music, stories, costume, she loved all of it. She had never taken a dance class in her life but jumped at the opportunity to watch the audition and support her friend. Engrossed, she didn’t notice a judge walking up to her. What happened next changed Zhou’s life forever.

“I remember it like it was a dream. A teacher stopped me and asked why I had not signed up for the exam. I didn’t know what to say and just stared blankly. Then she pulled me into (the testing area).”

To Zhou’s amazement, her height, long limbs, flexibility and jumps made her a prime choice and she was accepted into the academy. Even in a room full of trained hopefuls, her talent was recognizable. She nearly floated out of the room after hearing that she was accepted and tried to imagine the places she was about to see.

Ancient feelings stir

The world of epic martial arts stories enthralled Zhou as far back as her girlhood in China and in New Zealand where she emigrated with her parents. In her imagination, she joined chivalrous swordsmen to defend peace while executing bodacious kung fu flying moves. The little she had seen of Shen Yun — a single performance — left a deep impression on her. Shen Yun performers mastered the jumps and tumbling from ancient times and used them to retell heroic, heartwarming legends. She never dreamed she would join those artists nor that her life would become inextricably linked with Chinese culture. Today, Zhou is walking on cloud nine among international stars.

All epic heros must run a gauntlet of tests and Zhou was no exception. At the beginning of her training, she felt “dancing was just sweat, pain and tears.” But she was soon given a “magical secret” from the inner chambers of the art form that unlocked her mastery: inner bearing.

“At the beginning, I was just imitating the teachers’ movements. Later, the instructors would tell us to see the world from the character’s point of view. It was not just about doing the movements, but really about returning to the very ancient era, back to that particular scene to adopt that character’s state of mind. For example, ‘an ancient woman walking by the lake.’”

Zhou never walked across a stage the same way again. She imagined herself strolling regally around the lotus pond near the dance studio, wearing a traditional, floor-length silk gown and outer robe. She felt the long tassels of her jade pendant swinging from her belt among her robes in time with her steps. She saw ancient temples rising out of the forest and heard the resonant, harp-like Chinese zither. Inner bearing is what touches and transports Shen Yun audiences.

In 2012, Zhou’s grasp of bearing deepened when she participated in the NTD Television International Classical Chinese Dance Competition with ‘Fragrant Lotus Flower,” an ambitious piece that sought to express the elusiveness of scent. How was Zhou going to make the audience experience a lotus’ perfume through her performance?  

“When I first started that dance, I only thought about the movements. Teachers and classmates told me I didn’t possess the feeling of a fragrant lotus flower at all. So I put the music on and conjured up the lotus flowers here in our pond, the dew and mist that swirls around them in the mornings. When I whole-heartedly put myself into this scene, it seemed like the delicate floral perfume hung in the air around me and floated through the audience.”

Diving headlong

Zhou is now a member of Shen Yun’s professional troupe with a year of world touring behind her. Her jumps and gestures onstage are in perfect unison with fellow dancers but her inner world is deeply personal, vast and unusually courageous.   

“Every time we learn new advanced techniques like flips, I am always the first one to try them. Maybe that’s because I’ve read a lot of martial art novels! I’m pretty much a daredevil and I am not afraid to fall.”

Fearlessness and new-found feminine subtlety form folds and layers in Zhou’s personality and add immense richness to her performances.

“When I dance, my mouth doesn’t speak, but in my heart, there is dialogue going on. ‘Sing the music with your movements,’ our teachers say. If my heart is peaceful and awake, the most challenging dances aren’t hard and I don’t get tired.

“I’ve learned that “haste makes waste” in this art form; impatience and muscling through leads to dead ends and extra hardship. On the other hand, inner power is essential. When I extend my hand, I’m not just reaching out; there’s a sense of friction with the air. Then, together with the music, the dynamics are incredibly powerful.”