NEW YORK—Taiwan-born Cheng Tao-yung was deemed a natural dancer since she was young. Years later, she now has every quality essential to make a perfect dancer: a tall, slim body with legs long in proportion; perfected skills in technique and acting; and years of experience performing in top theaters around the world.
Ms. Cheng dances in practicum with Shen Yun Performing Arts and has performed at many prestigious venues with the company in the past four years, including the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., the Lincoln Center in New York, and the Palais des Congrès de Paris.
Ms. Cheng sets aside the sense of satisfaction her successful career brings her and focuses on the daily tasks of training and improving inner qualities—which she believes will make her an even better dancer. She credits her growth to the help from her fellow dancers; her humbleness must also be a factor.
“I’ve liked dancing ever since I can remember,” said Ms. Cheng, adding that her love for traditional dance was instilled in her.
“Before being introduced to classical Chinese dance, when I was little, I also did ballet and modern dance,” she said. “I remember once my parents sent me to a modern dance class that came as a bonus for another class. But after they left, I ran away! I knew modern dance was not my path.”
Life was generous to Ms. Cheng, always leading her in the direction of becoming a classical Chinese dancer. While still in Taiwan, she became a student of Chen Yung-chia, award-winning classical Chinese dancer from China. After lecturing in dance at Central University for Nationalities in Beijing, Mr. Chen opened a dance school in Taiwan. Under Mr. Chen’s guidance, Ms. Cheng’s skills were perfected. In 2007, Mr. Chen joined New York-based Shen Yun Performing Arts as a choreographer. A year later, he introduced Ms. Cheng to dance in practicum for the company.
Bringing Characters Alive
Ms. Cheng’s hallmark is her superb portrayal of a wide range of characters. “Acting has been relatively easy for me. I think that perhaps I have a bit of talent in it,” she said, with a shy smile. “The key is to release oneself.”
The young dancer has already played the part of many historical figures portrayed in Shen Yun’s repertoire. Each legend, myth, or story takes time to perfect and the most memorable piece, she said, was one dedicated to the brave Lady Mu Guiying.
Over a thousand years ago, the Northern Song Dynasty was on the verge of destruction due to constant foreign invasion. However, one family, with the name of Yang, had the courage and heart of loyalty to defend their country. As Wenguang, the last son of the Yang family died on the battlefield, its matriarch encouraged Wenguang’s wife, Mu Guiying, to command the troops. Ultimately, the heroine and other widows of the Yang family led the soldiers and saved the dynasty.
Each time a choreographer assigns a new story, Ms. Cheng takes time to find out every detail of the history. “In the first scene, Lady Mu Guiying sees her husband off to the battlefield. She knows that fighting for her country is a noble thing to do, but she was so sad to part from him,” said Ms. Cheng, who analyzed the character’s feelings after researching the story. “In the next scene, when she receives the message that her husband has died, she feels a sorrow so great that is unimaginable for most people.”
“I put myself into her mind and thought what her emotions would be like in that scene,” she said. “Then, after practicing everyday, the feelings came along naturally.”
Techniques are most specific when applied to the leading character of the performance, and classical Chinese dance is the origin of tumbling techniques. In the choreography of a heroic character like Lady Mu Guiying, movements are particularly challenging, with many aerial cartwheels that require a dancer to flip their body 360 degrees without hands touching the floor.
For a two-hour training on the fundamentals everyday, Ms. Cheng starts with 300 leg kicks in each direction before moving onto the barre and out to the studio floor where she precedes the training by practicing tumbling techniques.
“I used to have a fear of being upside down in the air,” said Ms. Cheng. “I realized my problem was that I did not have enough faith that I could do it. Then my fellow dancers encouraged me, and with their help, I conquered the fear.”
Dancing in practicum with Shen Yun Performing Arts was a turning point for Ms. Cheng and she acquired what realized is the most essential quality of a performer.
“A pure heart that is totally for others and not oneself is what makes Shen Yun different,” she said. “Before, when new roles and positions were being assigned, sometimes I would think, ‘I am better than that dancer, why am I not in front of her?’ But after I came here, I realized that no matter where I stand and which role I play, it is the same, because the key is not to show myself off but to assimilate myself into the group.”
Established in 2006, Shen Yun Performing Arts seeks to revive the divinely inspired culture and present it to the world.
“The heart of all performers makes the difference. We do not want to present only ourselves, but we want to revive traditional Chinese culture and introduce it to the world. So we think of how to present the culture and not us, ourselves,” said Ms. Cheng. “I’m happy to do my bit to fulfill this grand mission.”
Authentic teachings of classical Chinese dance could no longer be found in China after the Communist Party initiated a systematic campaign to destroy traditional culture.
“During curtain calls, when I see the smiles on the audience members’ faces, I have tears,” said Ms. Cheng. “I feel that our performances connect us to their hearts.”