NEW YORK—He played a divine being who had been banished from heaven and then turned into a child-eating monster in the human world, when a goddess evoked his innate compassion right before his destruction. This may sound like character development too complex to portray through dance, but not if Wei-Ming Kao is the dancer.
“Acting is very much a part of life,” said Mr. Kao, a principal dancer performing in practicum with Shen Yun Performing Arts. “When you are moved by the beauty of the dance, it is easier to portray that character.”
Watching him dance, one will notice that sublime grace and technical skills are not Mr. Kao’s only fortes. When he dances, it seems that he becomes the character he is portraying. He inhabits the historical era of the dance, and he makes ancient legends become a reality before your eyes.
Choreographers often choose Mr. Kao to play characters with multiple layers.
During the 2013 season, Mr. Kao was chosen to play Sand Monk in Shen Yun’s story dance “Sand Monk is Blessed.”
The dance is based on an ancient Chinese folk tale that is a part of the Chinese classic “Journey to the West.” It tells the story of how the Sand Monster becomes a Sand Monk when he joins the journey to help bring Buddhist scriptures from India to China.
“He’s a complicated character,” Mr. Kao said. “Although he looks like a monster and acts like a monster, there is still a small yet intrinsic part of him buried underneath that wants to return to his origin.”
Mr. Kao, indeed, gives a stirring performance of this classical character. He moves wildly yet gracefully. And as soon as the Goddess of Mercy appears on stage, Mr. Kao’s bearing softens.
“You feel the evil melting from you when you stand in front of the compassion of the Goddess of Mercy,” he said.
“I have played some bad characters. But bad has nuances, depending on the story,” Mr. Kao said.
Mr. Kao pays meticulous attention to the shades of a character.
He can instantly transform from a heavenly guard to a royal palace guard.
“For the first one you try to imagine a divine feeling. Imagine what the demeanor and aura of a divine being would be,” he said. “It’s a vastly different feeling from that of a soldier trained in the military.”
In the same evening, he also plays a farmer for the Yang Ge ethnic minority dance, where farmers celebrate a bountiful harvest. This piece is followed by a dance where Mr. Kao is an ancient Chinese scholar.
“It’s difficult to change your heart so many times,” he said. “But you have to capture the auras of your characters.”
But that’s not the only thing Mr. Kao can change on short notice.
During tour, a choreographer asked Mr. Kao to change the angle of one of his flips for the show on the following day.
The flip was a classical Chinese dance move called the “quan fei jiao,” where the dancer does a series of jumps and spins simultaneously while his or her body is in a horizontal position.
The choreographer wanted his jump so that his back was parallel to the ground while he jumped and spun. In one night, he successfully changed the feeling he had for that technique.
Mr. Kao has been selected to perform in practicum with Shen Yun Performing Arts in 2008. Shen Yun is a classical Chinese dance company founded in 2006 by a group of expatriate artists who wished to develop a performing arts group that would revitalize traditional Chinese culture.
Mr. Kao said he had always been interested in dance, but nothing quite moved him the way that classical Chinese dance does.
“In China, you can’t see this kind of dance anymore. I felt like I had found the true heritage of the Chinese culture after watching a Shen Yun performance in Taiwan,” he said.
Mr. Kao pursued advanced studies in classical Chinese dance at New York-based Fei Tian Academy of the Arts, and has performed around the world in practicum with Shen Yun.
(photo of Mr. Wei-Ming Kao courtesy of Shen Yun Performing Arts)