Tim Wu’s graceful flips give the illusion that he has transcended time’s restrictions. He leaps quickly with strength, then leisurely spins his body horizontally in midair. Landing hard from his high jumps, Tim’s new dance shoes will have holes by the end of the week.
Tim, 24, likes Arizona Green Tea and basketball. The difference between him and most of the other young “American-born Chinese” he grew up with is that he has spent years studying classical Chinese dance.
“I grew up in America, so apart from Chinese school on weekends, I didn’t really feel close to my own culture,” Tim said. “Dancing has brought me so much closer to my culture.”
Beyond challenging flipping and jumping techniques, classical Chinese dance is comprised of bearing and form. Bearing is the inner spirit; it focuses on breath and deep emotional expressions. It is a “cultural DNA,” an ethnic aura embedded within 5,000 years of Chinese civilization, leading the form.
“It’s not just about the dance, you have to spend time learning about the culture too,” Tim said. “The hardest part of Chinese dance is grabbing the essence of the movements.”
Tim’s most memorable dance was his solo as Wu Song, a character from Outlaws of the Marsh, one of China’s four literary classics. Wu Song saves a village from a tiger, killing it with his bare hands—while drunk.
“This is the most interesting role I’ve ever played because I don’t drink,” Tim said.
Tim has spent hours watching videos and imitating movements in the mirror. He described the feeling as “being off-balance but at the same time being in control of everything.”
Classical Chinese dance not only portrays the transformations of one’s innermost emotional state, but also daily activities from all walks of life.
From Manchurian princesses walking on dainty shoes with heels in the middle, to monk Xuan Zang, who walked to India to bring Mahayana Buddhist scriptures to China, classical Chinese dance portrays a wide spectrum of Chinese culture.
“If you don’t know a character’s history, or what he’s been though, then you won’t be able to portray that character well,” said William Li, also a classical Chinese dancer.
William and Tim dance in Shen Yun Performing Arts, a classical Chinese dance group based in New York. A group of overseas Chinese artists created the group in 2006, with a mission to revive the 5,000 years of Chinese culture.
William particularly enjoys his solo as “crazy” monk Ji Gong, in Shen Yun’s group dance Ji Gong Abducts the Bride. Ji Gong comes from a famous Chinese folklore about an unconventional monk who eats meat and drinks alcohol. The monk uses his supernatural abilities to rescue ordinary citizens from danger, albeit with comical means.
“Ji Gong is a very eccentric character. He led a tragic life. The death of his wife and family led him to become a monk,” William said.
Although Ji Gong does not follow temple rules—he strictly abides by Buddhist fundamentals. Ji Gong is able to let go and remain light at heart, despite his sorrowful life.
It’s easy for me to portray characters such as Ji Gong because he’s always happy no matter what.
“It’s easy for me to portray characters such as Ji Gong because he’s always happy no matter what,” said William. “Some people get face cramps when they smile for too long, but it’s natural for me.”
The performers are unable to see the audience on stage. “It’s an open black space and I just focus on the character I’m trying to portray,” William said.
Continued on the next page: Folk and Ethnic Dances