Butterfly Wings

A visual arts devotee entered the artistic chrysalis of Fei Tian Academy, training ground for Shen Yun Performing Arts, and emerged a star dancer. How did she do it? With optimism, meticulousness, and a little help from New Zealand.



When Kexin Li, principal dancer with Shen Yun Performing Arts, recounted how she reached the artistic level she is at today, she smoothed over the twists and turns and ups and downs of her story so it almost sounded uneventful. Now at the top echelon in what some say is the finest performing arts company in the world, her journey was anything but.

An eye for beauty

Li’s eyes are always smiling because she’s exceptional at discovering and appreciating beautiful things. Born in China, she immigrated to New Zealand with her mother when she was 12 years old. That pristine, magnificent landscape seemed to open its arms to young Li and spread out the very picture of nature in front of her.

“Growing up, I studied drawing and loved photography. I still do, especially landscape photography,” she said. “After travelling all over the world, New Zealand’s beauty is still my favourite. Photographs of New Zealand look like carefully composed landscape paintings to me.”

Was the transition from visual artist to performing artist a natural one? Not for Li.

“I had the height and flexibility of a dancer,” she said, but not the desire to be one. Even though her family urged her to apply to the top classical Chinese dance school in the world, Fei Tian Academy of the Arts, “I never considered becoming a professional dancer. I was so immersed in my world of photography and painting.”

She took the entrance exam anyway and was accepted in 2007. But she let the registration period slip by, opting to stay in New Zealand. When the entrance exam came around again, she threw her hat in once more, albeit apathetically. She didn’t pass.

However, after taking the test for the third time and being admitted in 2008, Li’s heart finally aligned with a career in classical Chinese dance. Something had altered her course.

“It was because I saw two consecutive performances of Shen Yun,” she said.

In April 2008, Shen Yun toured New Zealand for the first time. Parliament members sent messages of support, the chief of New Zealand’s native Maori people wrote a poem to welcome them, the country’s leading artists attended on opening night, and Chinese people who attended the show were deeply touched to see their culture at its best.

What Li had only dreamed artistically possible was suddenly right before her eyes when the curtain rose. Sweeping, animated backdrops and handmade costumes from China’s dynasties and ethnicities were brought to life by graceful, dynamic dancers.

Li didn’t drag her feet again. Instead of searching with a camera in the mountains and the seaside for snippets of beauty, she decided it was better to devote herself to creating extraordinary heavenly scenes and other visual feasts with Shen Yun artists, many of whom are graduates of Fei Tian Academy.

After her third and final entrance exam, she boarded a plane for New York.

The elusive key to success

Right away, Li discovered that the other-worldly grace of classical Chinese dance doesn’t come as easily as snapping a camera’s shutter. It was painful, “but what did that matter?” she thought. The two hurdles that confront most Fei Tian newcomers — homesickness and the difficult training required to reach top form — didn’t pose a problem for her; something else did.

What confounded Li was the fluidity she saw in other dancers and the ability to translate dance combinations into her own body. This eluded her to the point that, one by one, fellow classmates who were secretly sent by her teachers to act as “little tutors” gave up trying to help her.

“They were so patient with me, but I just could not get it!” After mulling it over deeply, her visual art training finally took over to solve the problem.

“I sat and observed those classmates whose movements are so beautiful. How did they do that? How did they hold themselves? What would they look like in a photo from another angle? If I couldn’t figure it out, I would ask: ‘I saw you doing this move, why did you do it this way? What did you want to convey?’ Then, they would explain it to me step by step. So, I gradually mastered the movements.”

With that puzzle unlocked, Li improved faster than most of her peers. Shen Yun management soon noticed her and she was quickly chosen to go on tour with the renowned company. A graceful butterfly was starting to spread her wings.

Stretching out

Now, when the curtain rises, Li is part of the amazing picture. Although she and a dozen fellow dancers “move as if they are one person,” as audience members often describe them, her individuality forms the basis for her inner bearing and her connection to the visual arts constantly adds depth to her performance.

“When I was performing the Mongolian Bowl Dance, my father happened to have just returned from a trip to Mongolia. He is also a photography enthusiast, and he took lots of pictures of the country for me to see,” she said.

Onstage, in Mongolian costume, the vast country’s scenery appeared in her mind’s eye: herds moving on the endless green steppe, white clouds floating in the azure sky. Her feet seemed to have really stepped onto the soft grassland and she danced with joy in her heart. Such sincere emotions are one of the things audiences say they’re so touched by at Shen Yun performances.

With every year that goes by, Li’s understanding of classical Chinese dance deepens. She is naturally feminine and sensitive to the point of being quite delicate sometimes, she says, which means she is comfortable in choreography that “demonstrates the ancient Chinese ladies’ charm.”

Other times, though, those traits bog her down, such as when she participated in New Tang Dynasty Television’s Fifth International Classical Chinese Dance Competition.

She choreographed a piece titled “Admiring Spring’s Beauty” but could hardly bring herself to show it to her teachers, afraid of what they would say about the piece’s imperfections. Her optimism and light-heartedness, which she largely attributes to New Zealand’s culture, eventually triumphed, allowing her to confront her own problems and correct the piece’s shortcomings. Her solo won the second runner-up in the adult female division of the dance competition.

When her father once complained about dancing not being a stable job, she explained to him that classical Chinese dance is here to stay.

“Classical Chinese dance will spread throughout the entire world in the future,” she told him.
“It is the most effective in expressing the [performers’] abundant emotions, narrating the storyline well and portraying the characters. Speaking from an aesthetic point of view, classical Chinese dance’s movements are particularly pleasing and flowing. Every gesture or emotion coming from the dancers toward the audience looks to be in the most comfortable state, which gives the audience endless enjoyment.”

Photography by Larry Dai