First Lian Xu learned to dance, then to listen, then to revel in her culture.
In 2014, Lian Xu entered a classical Chinese dance competition in New York City with a piece of work based on a 3,000 year old poem.
“Rushes and Reeds,” the poem is titled, from the Book of Odes. “Thick grow the rush leaves; / Their white dew turns to frost. / The one whom I love / Must be somewhere along this stream.”
Lian won a gold medal for her performance, which imparted such a sense of innocent yearning to the audience and judges that it left their hearts aching.
“I think this poem is especially beautiful,” Lian said, in an interview. “It is in another artistic realm. It doesn’t say who the ‘one’ being searched for is — there’s a dreamy beauty to it all.”
Lian Xu is now with Shen Yun Performing Arts, the world’s most renowned and respected classical Chinese dance company. When she is not training and practicing, she travels with dozens of peers, performing to sold-out audiences at the most prestigious theatres in the world. The lessons that she gained in her award-winning performance are what has allowed her to excel in an environment where excellence is the rule.
One of these lessons is “practice intensively.” Another, is “assimilate feedback.” While choreographing her dance about the poem, she was told that her movement — sweeping her fan across the water, looking for ‘the one’ — was too superficial.
“Someone told me that the movement was not rich enough; I should imagine the scene in the poem in front of me: the green reeds, the crystal dew, and the glittering waves on the water. When I imagined it, my movement immediately changed,” Lian said. “The beauty rose from the bottom of my heart, flowing to every part of my body.”
Lian Xu entered Fei Tian Academy of the Arts, the incubator for Shen Yun dancers, after her family moved from Taiwan to the United States when her father changed jobs. Studying at Fei Tian was a dream she had cherished since she was 7 years old, when she first saw Shen Yun on stage in Taipei. After that performance, her parents sent her to local classical Chinese dance classes. She first applied to join Fei Tian when just 11 years old but wasn’t tall enough to meet the requirement.
Time passed, and she grew, later applying again. After she was admitted, the real work began.
“When I began to learn dance here, a senior student told me that I should learn to be strong,” Lian said. “But I didn’t understand what she meant.”
Lian was already strong, physically: extremely flexible, very nimble, she jumps high, and has more than enough stamina. She picked up dancing like it was second nature.
But physicality is not all that matters when it comes to the complex art of China’s classical dance. Mental and spiritual strength and endurance are also necessary.
Feedback, for instance, hasn’t always been easy for Lian to accept. Growing up in Taiwan with loving parents and great talent at whatever she did, she rarely had cause to be corrected.
“I had done almost everything well since I was little,” Lian said. “I was rarely criticized. Therefore, it’s especially hard for me to accept teachers’ or classmates’ comments on my flaws or problems.”
Lian’s standards for herself have always been high, so when she failed to learn a movement after repeated practice, she would find it almost unbearable.
“One night, when I was practicing after dance class, a senior student tried to help me. Although she was very gentle, I couldn’t bear it. I felt like the sky was collapsing,” Lian recalled.
Her friend didn’t react, though, instead continuing to patiently teach, until they practiced together for another two hours. It was late, but “I finally learned that movement!” she says.
Lian was deeply touched by the selflessness of the other student, who displayed the generosity of spirit that is a core part of Shen Yun’s mission, and China’s traditional culture.
“If there was no one to point out my problems, how could I improve?” Lian reflected. She now relishes such opportunities.
China’s classical dance has a history of thousands of years, and is an important component of the country’s culture, featured in court dances before the emperor, or during the celebration of auspicious occasions. With its intricate and delicate forms, postures, and bearing, Chinese classical dancers have an endlessly expressive palette with which to tell stories and impart their characters’ feelings to the audience.
Actors can rely on facial expressions to communicate their meaning, Lian pointed out. But dance is an art of the entire body. “Your whole body must be driven by a full and abundant feeling, which you then bring out and give full expression to in your movements and expressions. Everyone in the audience can then feel it,” Lian said.
From her award-winning performance, to the casual references to Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu that she peppered the interview with, Lian’s understanding of the relationship between her own art and China’s traditions has only deepened over the years.
Her impression of China’s ancient language — not the kind used today, but that which appears in books through the millennia — has also changed. She found reading such stories dull in school, but now finds them vivid and exciting, partly because of the messages they impart.
“I want more people to understand traditional Chinese culture through watching Shen Yun,” Lian said. With her wide eyes and happy smile, it’s impossible not to believe her. Lian Xu’s innocence is disarming, and the hopeful vision she has for the revival of China’s traditional culture — downright catching.
Photography by Larry Dai