NEW YORK—How does a dancer tell a story when the audience cannot see her facial expression? Caroline Sercombe is an expert on that.
Ms. Sercombe is a dancer performing in practicum with Shen Yun Performing Arts, a classical Chinese dance company based in New York.
A main component of classical Chinese dance is its storytelling aspect. Classical Chinese dance is known for its dramatic portrayal of legendary folk tales, as well as stories taking place in the present day.
Ms. Sercombe has been chosen for several lead roles due to her incredible ability to convey profound feelings through her movements alone.
“It is hard to show the audience something that can only be felt, but not seen on the outside,” she said. “You have to make clear the transitions.”
Ms. Sercombe dances the lead role in the dance piece, “An Unexpected Encounter.”
The piece tells the story of Western tourists visiting China who are swept up in the persecution of Falun Gong.
Falun Gong is an ancient meditation practice with a foundation in the principles of truth, compassion, and tolerance. Since its ban by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1999, its adherents have been facing persecution, including arrests and fatal torture.
There are multiple transitions in Ms. Sercombe’s character throughout this dance.
From grievance, to despair, to spiritual revelation, Ms. Sercombe conveys precise emotional transitions through her movements.
The protagonist, played by Ms. Sercombe, at first blames the Falun Gong meditators for her arrest and that of her father.
The character’s father is brutally beaten in jail, and dies in Ms. Sercombe’s arms.
“I hold on tighter and tighter to him as I feel his soul slipping away,” she said. “I try to grab the impossible every night. And after many performances, I have to make the story equally compelling each time.”
When her character’s father dies, Ms. Sercombe breaks off into an emotional solo, doing a series of powerful “chuan fan shen” to release her anguish.
The chuan fan shen is a classical Chinese dance move that combines spinning and turning, where the dancer performs a series of turns while spinning his or her arms vertically.
The more the dancer turns, the higher it represents her level of mastery of the move. Ms. Sercombe does chuan fan shens across the stage, afterward which she immediately leaps into a split.
More often than not, the audience breaks into applause after her solo of despair, even though she is spinning so fast that her facial expression is unseen.
“It’s about telling the audience something without speaking to them,” she said. “In order to touch the audience you must be touched. Dance is a communication of feelings.”
After her solo, her character sees the bigger picture of who the true culprit is, forgives and finds spiritual revelation.
Traditional Chinese Culture Through Dance
“Classical Chinese dance can express profound ideas and inner peace,” Ms. Sercombe said. It has helped preserve 5,000 years of Chinese culture. Built on traditional aesthetics, it was once passed down among the people, in imperial courts, and through ancient plays, according to the Shen Yun website.
China’s deep cultural traditions are contained in classical Chinese dance, allowing its movements to express the personalities and feelings of characters.
“You have to have inner knowledge of Chinese culture, in order to express it, in order for it to naturally come out,” Ms. Sercombe said.
Ms. Sercombe was born in Hornsby, Australia, of parents from both China and the West.
“I’m half Chinese and half Australian,” she said. “I found my roots in dance. Chinese culture holds deep meanings and I find it very much worth dancing for.”