Shen Yun Dancer Yi Li’s life seems to have jumped out of the fairytales she learned while growing up in Germany.
Half Caucasian and half Chinese, dancer Yi Li grew up on a farm in southern Germany. Horseback riding, fairytales, and sports filled her childhood. Then one day after seeing Shen Yun Performing Arts, her mother suggested she try dancing, setting in motion a magical new life.
A childhood of contrasts
When she was still an infant, Li’s parents moved from China to a farm just outside Munich, Germany, her father’s homeland and the metropolis famed for Oktoberfest and BMW cars.
“Like the other girls, I loved reading about fairytales, royal stuff like Buckingham Palace. But I never imagined myself as a princess. I grew up surrounded by horses and cattle, playing outside,” said Li, who now plays a princess and other magical characters on stage with Shen Yun Performing Arts, a premier classical Chinese dance company that tours the world and sparks the imagination of a new generation of little girls.
Li’s imagination spilled onto the pages of sketchbooks through drawings of fairytale kingdoms and anything that came to mind. She played sports with her dad and lived a playful life in the countryside.
One thing that set Li apart from the other German kids was her Chinese mother who stressed culture in her upbringing, sending Li to ballet, flute, and singing lessons. Amid all these European influences, she also fought to keep her daughter connected to her Chinese roots by speaking Chinese at home and teaching her to meditate.
At 13, she and her mother went to see a performance of Shen Yun during the company’s European tour. Seeing an ad in the program book about Fei Tian Academy of the Arts (the school that trains many of Shen Yun’s dancers), her mother casually suggested she try out.
When Fei Tian called her back, it was like she had awoken in her own fairytale. In just a few days, this German country girl packed her bags and left the family farm for New York and eventually the world stage.
Every good fairytale tests its protagonist
“Let me tell you how I became who I am now,” said Li. “Before, I was incredibly shy. When I first came here, I couldn’t speak a word in Chinese or English. So no one could understand what I was saying. Everyone always thought I was very rude. They got nicer eventually, but that first week and first month were just horrible.”
In addition to communication and friendships, Li had another major limitation: flexibility. “I had to go through a lot of pain. I wasn’t very flexible, especially my back and my legs. I cried every day. I wanted to go home, but somehow I pushed through. And after all those hardships and pains, something like the true heart of dancing awoke in me. It was so wonderful … I am trying to find a good word … I don’t know … I just, I’m so grateful to be here and be who I am,” said the demure dancer searching her second language vocabulary to describe that elusive sense of fulfillment everyone searches for.
All the world’s a stage
In 2013, Yi Li was selected to join Shen Yun Performing Arts and took off on her first world tour. Now it is her job to bring fairytales to life for others.
Fei Tian Academy taught her more than just dance. She also studied Chinese history and classical Chinese culture, which is full of mythical stories. Among the vast number of legends she read about, Li’s favourite was “The Butterfly Lovers” or Liangzhu.
In New Tang Dynasty Television’s 2013 International Classical Chinese Dance Competition, Li portrayed the story’s heroine, Yingtai, who had to masquerade as a boy in order to attend school. A witty maverick of a character, the dance helped her connect with her own adventurous side.
Li said that she was just a simple girl back in Germany, just wanting to read books and whistle away the days on the farm. In all her many daydreams, she never pictured herself on stage bowing to the applause of packed theaters.
She smiles now as she looks back on the pain of stretching her legs out every night and the tears of frustration as she tried to make new friends in a new language. “That’s what made me who I am.”
Photography by Larry Dai