Shen Yun Performing Arts is a transformative experience, which, in many ways, transcends Chinese culture. From the audience members to the dancers gliding across the stage, the performance touches people in different ways, imparting insights that are familiar, yet forgotten. For lead dancer Linjie Huang, Shen Yun’s seed of self-exploration was planted even before she knew she wanted to dance. Her story of fire and water shows not only the company’s power to inspire, but its ability to guide her to who she was truly born to be.
Huang’s first glimpse of Shen Yun was when she was a 15-year-old, sitting in a theatre in Taipei, a memory hallmarked by flips, tumbling, and the athletic prowess of dancing warriors.
“When I first wanted to learn classical Chinese dance, it was really because I felt that the movements of male dancers on the stage were really cool,” she says. A tomboy at heart, she excelled at all the sports she often played with her brothers.
After the show, her father asked her if she’d like to dance, almost a rhetorical question as he looked upon his beaming daughter.
“I applied to Fei Tian Academy of Arts once I got home,” Huang says, referring to the New York-based training academy for many of Shen Yun’s finest dancers. “I remember I finally received a reply after sending the application three times.”
When she arrived in New York, eager to learn the explosive techniques of the boys, she was confronted with a different reality.
“I suddenly remembered that I’m a girl, who can’t learn those cool movements of the male dancers,” she says. Instead, since she had no formal training, she’d have to start with the most basic, simple gestures and movements. While this approach didn’t exactly thrill the teenager, she would soon find a new world, in fact, an expansive universe, within classical Chinese dance, spurring personal growth in tandem with her mastery of ancient art.
“I had thought that dancers were all athletic with simple minds,” she says with a chuckle. “Once I started learning dance, I finally realized that it was so mind-consuming. First, you have to remember every movement, from head to feet, and then your position on the stage. At first, when the music started, I didn’t remember where I should go.”
But the practical placement of where to be on stage compared little to the growth she would undergo as a girl in becoming a lady — fit to flow like the noble women of ancient legend. Classical Chinese dance embodies a certain spirit, often with movements and postures depicting goddesses and femininity — glowing with grace, softness, beauty, and dignity.
“When I came to the U.S., even though I wore a ponytail, many people still thought I was a boy,” Huang says. “We have to tie our hair in a tight bun for training. So when we’re not training, everyone will quickly loosen their hair to relax the scalp, but I was not used to having my hair untied.”
Though her transformation was gradual, her trip home in 2014 to perform with Shen Yun was a revelation for her family.
“My relatives and friends all came to see our performances,” she says. “With the exception of my parents, no one could recognize me on the stage. My dad even said he finally saw ‘a daughter’ on the stage.”
Naughty to nice
A decade has flown by since Huang started dancing, and her appreciation for Shen Yun has grown as rich as the unforgettable experiences she’s had travelling and inspiring the world with classical art.
“We have a mission to promote traditional Chinese culture through dancing, so we have to treat it with heart,” she says with a gentle seriousness, remembering her experience at the 7th NTD International Classical Chinese Dance Competition in 2016.
To join the competition, contestants were required to choreograph their own dance piece, which she did with Naughty Girl Steals Peaches and Escapes.
“When I performed it for my classmates, they thought the effect was good,” she says. “But my teacher thought it wasn’t suitable because it had no deeper meaning to meet the competition’s mission of promoting traditional Chinese culture. It was near the competition, so I was struggling with whether I should change the dance piece.” With only one month left, Huang decided to prepare a new piece, Flying Heavenly Maiden, which would challenge her in many ways.
“I listened to the music as soon as I got up every day,” she says. “I tried to find feelings in the music and thought about the movements one by one. I heard the music almost a thousand times over that period of time.”
Choreographing a dance piece isn’t simply an intellectual exercise, Huang explains — you must try things out, and see what works.
“At the beginning, it might start from a technique or a fixed dance gesture,” she says. “Then you have to think how to connect two separate movements together. The connection is the hardest part, because if they’re not connected well, the two movements will not have any power.”
After much sweat and toil, like a lotus emerging from murky waters, Huang completed the choreography of her new piece — simple in concept but difficult to portray. In the dance, a statue of a flying heavenly maiden suddenly awakens and descends as a goddess to dance on earth. Once done dancing, she returns to her form as a dignified, beautiful statue.
“It is indeed difficult,” Huang says about her journey from statue to deity. “I mainly represented the statue with my body
and expression in my eyes, which had to be empty, without consciousness. When I was brought to life, it should be represented very subtly — from the movement of my fingertips, to gradually making the body of blood and flesh, little by little. The eye expression turns from empty to vivid and bright. When dancing the piece, I deeply felt the richness classical Chinese dance can express. You can express almost anything in the dance. It gives a lot of room for dancers to perform.”
Huang’s hard work earned her the silver medal. “Of course, I’m happy about winning the award, but I also feel regret about it,” she says. “Since I changed the piece, I didn’t have enough time to prepare. The new piece still had a lot to improve and many details to think about, but I ran out of time. It was my fault for indulging in my preferences, and hadn’t treated it seriously enough. I will correct and improve this in the future.”
Lady to leader
It’s hard to imagine Huang as she described her old self, in light of how she carries herself with such easy grace — a transformation that truly began with new understanding.
“In the past, when people said that ancient women were virtuous, wise, and gentle, it seemed they were incapable of doing anything,” she says. “But it’s not so, in fact. There were women like Mulan and Mu Guiying — they could do what men could do for their father or country. They had the ability. When they’re not needed, they won’t show off, but be humble. However, when they are needed, they’ll stand out.”
People say women are like water, which appears soft and weak. But the ancient sage Laozi sees things differently, describing water as the most powerful in the Tao Te Ching. “Water easily benefits all things without struggle,” wrote Laozi. “Nothing in the world is softer than water, yet nothing is better at overcoming the hard and strong. This is because nothing can alter it.”
Huang’s journey with Shen Yun has helped her grasp the profundity of this ancient wisdom.
“Water is humble,” Huang says. “It can be adjusted to all environments and topography, always silently nourishing others. Water is the softest and weakest, but it can subdue the strongest as well. If modern people don’t understand these principles, they’ll misunderstand ancient culture, thinking that women always depended on others. In fact, a woman has a woman’s strength, and should be able to take care of others better.”
The healing, nourishing, comforting elements of water are now the lessons Huang is struggling with and learning, always a student of life despite her recent elevation to a new role, as class leader.
“It has changed me a lot,” she says of her new responsibilities over the last two years. “I had an independent character and had not cared about others. When I saw that others were sad, I didn’t know how to comfort them.”
When some of the girls were unhappy, maybe what they needed was affection, or a hug, though Huang would often speak too harshly. “I can’t be comforting others like that,” she says. “I always told them with reason that it’s exactly their fault.” She found that this approach, which lacked kindness, would often cause more problems.
Huang looked more deeply at her behavior, seeing that she still projected a toughness and masculinity that didn’t bring out the best in her fellow dancers. She thought the dancers should be firm like her, adopting her perspective. “I have to change myself for our class.”
Though looking inside for her own character flaws is the right approach, Huang thinks she still judges others, which has stunted her growth.
“I seldom had opportunities to play a major role in dance dramas,” she says. “In addition to some objective conditions, I think it also has something to do with my personality. To represent a character, you have to make yourself that person. If you’re too strong and insist on your own character too much, how can you succeed?”
Huang’s intertwined voyage of classical Chinese dance and personal growth is, like a river, still flowing. She says she eagerly awaits performing and moulding into new characters in this year’s brand new program.
English Text by J.H. White Photography by Hugh Zhao
Jewellery Courtesy of DSF Antique Jewelry Shoot Location Courtesy of Glenmere Mansion