Classical Chinese dancer Madeline Lobjois has come to cherish the depth and divinity of Chinese culture through portraying its legendary characters on stage.
Madeline Lobjois dances elegantly between two cultures. As one of the world’s best classical Chinese dancers, she connects with the long history and rich culture of the Chinese heritage on her mother’s side. But she was also born and raised in France, and her father is French.
The influences of East and West mingle and complement each other — in her appearance, disposition, discipline, modesty, and many other characteristics that have led to her success.
Her beauty and graceful temperament are immediately apparent. In appearance, she has inherited pleasing features, both Eastern and Western, from her parents. Through years of dance training, she has developed a perfect posture and bearing, bringing the refinement, balance, and poise of her stage performance into her daily life.
As a Westerner, she’s direct and frank; as an Easterner, she’s modest and tenacious. She has learned much from both cultures, she says.
“My mom has probably had more influence on me, so I feel I’m more like a Chinese person. My mom is more stern than Western parents. She wouldn’t praise me too much, which has taught me to be humble since childhood,” Lobjois says. “So I don’t feel that I’m anything significant. This kind of personality has helped me a lot since I came to study and live in New York.”
It was in 2007 that Lobjois first encountered Shen Yun, the New York-based performance company that would become her mission and her passion.
She watched a Shen Yun performance in Paris with her parents. It was the first time she had the chance to see classical Chinese dance. “I felt that the dancers on the stage were particularly beautiful. One of my mom’s friends said I was well-suited for dancing, so I decided to apply for it.”
She applied to Fei Tian Academy of the Arts in New York, where she learned classical Chinese dance and soon began performing for Shen Yun.
Lobjois grew up in France, but always felt deeply connected to her Chinese heritage, a connection that would lead her on a bold journey far from home.
At first, her mother was not really passionate about her daughter’s decision. “She was probably thinking about how I had never left France before, and was probably worried about my going that far away.”
But Lobjois has always been a little daring.
She was a lively and active child, who especially liked sports. “I’ve been bold since I was young,” Lobjois says. “Once when I was at a playground with other kids, we were high up on the jungle gym when someone asked which of us dared to jump down. No one else dared to, but I jumped without hesitation. I also dared to stand on a bike seat while going full speed.”
Her dauntless spirit would help her in the decade to follow. She was a young woman living away from home, enduring the pain and hardship required to train to a high standard of dancing perfection. Yet she and the other dancers did so happily, Lobjois says, because they feel strongly about Shen Yun’s mission.
Many dancers had gathered from around the world with a common wish — they wanted to be part of Shen Yun’s revival of authentic Chinese culture and share it with the world. This culture, which has a history of about 5,000 years, is believed to be divinely inspired. The Chinese communist regime has all but destroyed this heritage since the Cultural Revolution began in the 1960s.
Because of this suppression, it was actually easier for Lobjois to encounter true Chinese culture in France (where she was able to see Shen Yun) than in China (where Shen Yun is banned).
The spiritual roots of the culture are essential to the dancers. Even the name Shen Yun means “the beauty of divine beings dancing.” The expression of the dancer’s inner spirit, called bearing, is important in classical Chinese dance.
Shen Yun Performing Arts started only one year before Lobjois joined, and she has watched it expand and become a top performance company globally. It started with one dance company in 2006 and now has five companies, each touring the world.
Every company also features a live symphony orchestra. Like Lobjois, the orchestras are a mix of Chinese and Western elements. Ancient Chinese melodies and instruments, such as the two-stringed erhu, combine with the grandeur of the Western symphony.
As one of the most veteran members in Shen Yun, Lobjois feels great pride and hope. “Sometimes when I dance on the stage, I look around and I feel like all the dancers around me are like my younger sisters. Seeing them is like seeing the future hope of Shen Yun. As one of the veteran members, we all try our best to pass on the skills and experiences we’ve accumulated.”
Maybe it’s because Lobjois has a younger sister that she is well-suited to playing the role of a big sister to her fellow dancers. “When I was 11 or 12, my mom was very busy at work, so I had to take care of my sister, like making simple meals for her. Perhaps I’m used to it, so I really like to take care of others.”
Classical Chinese dance emphasizes the expression of a dancer’s inner spirit, encouraging dancers like Lobjois to continually improve their hearts and minds.
Helping other dancers and working as an instructor at Fei Tian has enriched her dancing experience. As Shen Yun has grown, so have Lobjois’ skills as a dancer.
“I’ve been a person who loves to learn since I was young,” she says. “I think it’s probably one of the reasons classical Chinese dance attracts me. It’s really rich. There’s always something we need to learn, and there is no limit for improvement.”
While flips and spins are an exciting and impressive part of classical Chinese dance, it is also richly expressive in its most minute gestures.
Lobjois gave an example of the thought that goes into the movements. “Every dance movement will have a starting point from which to exert the strength. The movement starts from that point. I’ve danced for more than 10 years, and the starting points keep changing.”
“At first what we paid attention to most was the movements of our hands,” she says. “Then we found that only using our hands as the starting point is not enough; the starting point should be from the wrist, then the forearms, and the whole arms, and then extending to the shoulders. Every time when we extend a bit of the starting point, many more changes can be added to the movements. Then we have to repeatedly think about it and practice.”
The different roles Lobjois plays on stage also give her an ever-deepening appreciation of Chinese culture through its legends. Shen Yun creates a whole new performance each year, featuring dance dramas and dances from China’s many different ethnic groups.
During Shen Yun’s 2014 tour, Lobjois played a princess in the dance drama The Monkey King Thwarts the Evil Toad. The story is from the Chinese classical novel Journey to the West. The princess is kidnapped by an evil toad who then disguises himself as the princess to do harm to others. Lobjois was able to portray both good and evil in the same character, playing both the real and fake princesses.
In 2016, she played Chang’e in the dance drama, The Lady of the Moon. With her vivid expressions and soulful dance, she portrayed Chang’e, who was distraught after drinking an elixir of immortality that carried her to the moon, separating her from her beloved husband.
Reflecting on what characteristics help her portray these characters, Lobjois says, “I think it’s probably due to my Western heritage.”
“Western people are more straightforward in expressing their emotions,” she says. “You can easily tell whether they are angry or happy. I am not used to concealing my emotions in daily life, so when I am on the stage, I can naturally play the role as long as I enter the role.”
However, Lobjois stresses that performing classical Chinese dance also requires traditional Chinese characteristics. “I’ve seen a dancer who grew up in Western society. When she dances classical Chinese dance, she can clearly express her emotions, but you can tell at one glance that it’s the way Westerners express their emotions, not Chinese people.”
In The Monkey King Thwarts the Evil Toad, Lobjois plays a princess of ancient Chinese legend who is abducted by an evil toad that transforms into a likeness of the princess to fool the court and wreak havoc. (c) copyright by Shen Yun Performing Arts Lobjois has learned to appreciate the rich expressiveness of classical Chinese dance as she portrays the strong emotions of her characters — from heavenly bliss to tragedy in the varied legends Shen Yun brings to the stage.
The rich ethnic characteristics formed by thousands of years are hard to express with language or to develop intentionally, Lobjois says. “But if you’re of Chinese descent, you will naturally have it. You only need to learn to release it and represent it through training. It is also what Shen Yun wants to represent and express to all audiences around the world. It’s a big part of the authentic and orthodox Chinese culture.”
She elaborated on her perspective of Western and Eastern culture: “To put it simply, Western people are living in a kind of square frame. They tend to follow rules more. Eastern people are like a circle. They are more flexible in dealing with things.”
Lobjois remembers, for example, one time she had wanted to get some dessert, but her French grandmother wouldn’t let her. It wasn’t the right time for eating dessert.
From the Western perspective, one should only eat dessert at a certain time. This seems too rigid for the Chinese people, Lobjois says, but it is quite reasonable for Westerners, who have more rules and rituals.
In the art of dance, there are also differences between East and West. Lobjois compares the Western ballet with classical Chinese dance. “The movements in classical Chinese dance are quite round, having a kind of fluid feeling, but the movements of ballet are more straight and more precise.”
Lobjois gives the example of a movement in classical Chinese dance called Xie Tan Hai (斜探海), which looks like a movement in ballet, Attitude. The movements both involve raising one leg to the back, one arm rising horizontally, and the other arm held high.
Lobjois dances buoyantly as she plays Chang’e in The Lady of the Moon; it’s a Chinese legend that starts with love and excitement, but ends in sorrow as Chang’e drinks an elixir of immortality that separates her forever from her husband.(c) copyright by Shen Yun Performing Arts (c) copyright by Shen Yun Performing Arts
In ballet, the emphasis is on precision of posture; the gesture is graceful and stretched, the dancer’s head is upright, and the gaze is directed into the distance. In classical Chinese dance, the emphasis is on making the movements look natural. The dancer’s head is inclined slightly towards the ground. Her arms, legs, and hands are subtly gestured to express the introverted and shy personality of traditional Chinese women.
The postures are rounded, curving, to match the circular, infinite harmony of Yin and Yang in traditional Chinese culture, which is also part of the soul of classical Chinese dance.
Lobjois remains full of confidence and passion as she strives to ever greater heights with Shen Yun. There are many challenges living on the road while touring and giving her all to each performance, but Lobjois has a good philosophy on life. “I’m a person who will do whatever comes to me. I only focus on the moment and do well everything at hand. Oftentimes, the less you are worried, the fewer burdens you will have in the process, and things will progress more smoothly. I hope this year’s tour will be as successful as in the past.”
English Text by Tara dos Santos Photography by Hugh Zhao