Shen Yun dancer Cherie Zhou relives the soul-searching journey a classical Chinese dancer must go through and her experience portraying challenging character roles.
Lights, music, movement. The next contestant nearly floated onstage at the 2014 New Tang Dynasty Television 6th International Classical Chinese Dance Competition. For Shen Yun dancer Cherie Zhou, this was a dream come true.
Zhou’s solo that day brought to life the historic and legendary Huā Mùlán — a devoted daughter who took her aging father’s place to fight for her country. Disguised as a man, Mulan fought in battlefields for more than 10 years — and led troops to victory — before quietly returning home to look after her ailing parent.
“I’ve kind of idolized Mulan ever since I learned about her in our classical Chinese class,” said 18-year-old Zhou. “We studied the ancient Ballad of Mùlán; it has such beautiful writing, and what she did struck me as so deeply selfless. I’ve always wanted to become that strong and feminine character.”
On looking back
“Mulan is the character I admire most in ancient Chinese history,” declared Zhou, who is now steeped in her 5,000-year-old ancestry as she trains and performs with Shen Yun. But she was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, a city of triumphant architecture and wholesome Midwest appeal. Her parents sent her at age 5 to local ballet classes and later to learn Chinese folk dancing, piano and painting.
Then at 12, she entered the world of classical Chinese dance when she joined the New York-based Fei Tian Academy of the Arts.
“Before that, I never thought of dance as a potential career,” said Zhou. “But a voice told me that living in Chicago — going to school or practicing piano every day — may not be as wonderful as going to New York to dance!” Her eyes sparkled as she said it. Moving away from home to train at Fei Tian was a pivotal moment in her life.
Despite her background in ballet, she was not prepared for classical Chinese dance, which in addition to form and technique, demands “bearing,” or the expression of deep inner meaning through movement.
“I grew up in Western society,” Zhou said. “At first, I couldn’t feel the inner feeling of ancient Chinese characters. I couldn’t internalize the character roles, so my movements couldn’t reach the bearing that’s required in classical Chinese dancing.”
From the heart
“Classical Chinese dancing starts from heart,” said Zhou with a smile. “The movement originates from there, which means you need to put yourself into the role and feel the inner world of the character,” she explained. “When the music begins, your heart needs to get ready and start first, even before your body moves.”
During her fledging days, Zhou said she focused on flexibility and techniques instead of cultivating her heart. But soon the nuances of classical Chinese dance lit up inside of her like fireflies. “A movement of the hand, a stance,” said Zhou, “it’s all a conduit between the dancer’s thoughts and the audience.”
During the conversation, Zhou turned again and again to a pearl of wisdom she received from her teacher: “A dancer needs to take his or her own body as a piece of art, to cultivate it — every detail of it.”
Past, present, perfect
The things Zhou appreciates most about classical Chinese dance are often its most difficult aspects. She finds herself drawn to intimidating roles that take her longer to perfect. To hone her skills and quench her thirst for knowledge, Zhou dove into Chinese literature and history.
“I found that Chinese literature is amazing. Just a few words can express complicated and deep meanings. Just like classical Chinese dancing… every movement can contain so many meanings,” Zhou said.
Her exploration paid off when she took on the dual roles of the cute Jade Rabbit of Lady Chang’e and the wicked rabbit of the evil monster in the Monkey King Thwarts the Evil Toad in the 2014 Shen Yun tour.
“That was challenging because it was my first role as a character, and I wasn’t even a human character.” On top of that, the role’s choreography was especially exhausting. “So I had to put a lot of thought into how I’d portray the rabbit,” said Zhou.
“Once onstage, I needed to put all of myself into that wicked character — to be as ugly as possible. I needed to throw out my pride because the movement of the monster was ugly and weird. Few dancers wanted to do it. But as a dancer, this is the spirit of being professional!”
Zhou recognizes the invaluable experience she gained on the last tour. But she said her greatest learning experience was the solo portrayal of Huā Mùlán, a performance that won the Bronze Award in the Junior Female Division at the 2014 NTDTV International Classical Chinese Dance Competition. She choreographed the movements herself with the help of her teachers and friends.
“I tried to bring alive Mulan’s vision — her spirit, her dreams, her hopes,” and to show that she was homesick and longing for her family while on the battlefield. “She was just a young girl, definitely. She didn’t belong on the battlefield,” Zhou said. “Despite the dangers that lurked, Mulan carried on with her choice and her incredible sacrifice.” This has a special meaning for the young Chicagoan who too left home when she was a young girl, not for war, but to face the constant tests of becoming one of the world’s premier classical Chinese dancers.
Photography by Larry Dai