Artist Profile: Jason Pan, an Intellectual Dancer

Mr. Pan, a principal dancer with Shen Yun Performing Arts, on traditional culture and the philosophy behind Chinese classical dance.
Artist Profile: Jason Pan, an Intellectual Dancer
For dancer Jason Pan, understanding the inner psyche of the characters he portrays is an essential part of the process. (Dai Bing/The Epoch Times)
Annie Wu

Alone in the dance studio, Jason Pan practiced movements over and over again, until he mastered them to perfection. He repeated every gesture and facial expression in front of the mirror while analyzing the minute details within. It sometimes felt lonely, practicing hours into the night.

But that experience has allowed him to better understand the characters he portrays on stage. Mr. Pan is a principal dancer with the New York-based Shen Yun Performing Arts, a world-class performing arts troupe specializing in classical Chinese dance—an art form with thousands of years of rich history. Passed down through the Chinese imperial court and later through Chinese theater and opera, classical Chinese dance is one of the world’s most expressive dance forms.

Mr. Pan’s approach to his craft is exemplified by his 2021 performance for the International Classical Chinese Dance Competition. He worked on the choreography for nine months, incorporating swordplay, discussing the musical accompaniment with his composer friend who created the music, and recording himself frequently to monitor progress. Mr. Pan’s dance piece about Li Bai, a famed poet from ancient China’s Tang Dynasty, won him a silver award.

He explained that he read Li’s poetry extensively, as well as volumes about the man himself. One particular poem stuck out to him. In “Question and Answer on the Mountain,” the poet reflects on his solitude, content with being far away from the mundane world. Mr. Pan said he related to the poet’s sentiments: His process of perfecting dance movements, learning to move as one with the sword, was similar. In the studio by himself, it was a solitary journey. But slowly, as he worked on each step, he said, “it was like a process of cultivation ... and my heart became calm.” Mr. Pan began to appreciate the time and space he had to quiet his mind.

Passing Down Traditional Culture

Mr. Pan, who was born in Taiwan, has been intrigued by ancient Chinese culture from a young age. (Dai Bing/The Epoch Times)
Mr. Pan, who was born in Taiwan, has been intrigued by ancient Chinese culture from a young age. (Dai Bing/The Epoch Times)

Understanding the inner psyche of characters is essential to Mr. Pan’s performances. Born as Pan Ko Chi in Taiwan, where much of traditional Chinese culture has been preserved following the communist takeover of mainland China, he was intrigued by ancient Chinese architecture, fashion, and art from a young age. His mother was a teacher of classical Chinese writing and introduced him to the moral lessons passed down in stories and legends.

He also had a keen interest in martial arts. At 13, he won national-level competitions for changquan, or “long fist,” style martial arts. But after watching a Shen Yun performance in 2009, his interest switched to classical Chinese dance. Shen Yun’s mission of reviving 5,000 years of Chinese civilization especially resonated with Mr. Pan, who yearned to learn more about the values he grew up with.

He enrolled at a classical Chinese dance academy soon after. Due to a leg injury sustained during martial arts training, stretching—necessary for developing a dancer’s flexibility—was especially painful. But over time, he endured and succeeded.

The martial arts background was a double-edged sword; the motions were similar in some ways, but with a notable difference. “In martial arts, completing the movement is the goal. ... It’s about the strength and the speed, whereas dance is about the process in motion. The strength is all for displaying to the audience,” Mr. Pan said. It took him a year to re-wire his movements, he said. That was when he started rehearsing alone in the studio, slowly running through each step of the choreography.

It was a laborious journey, but over time, the suffering turned into joy, Mr. Pan said. “If you’re passionate about something, and put your whole heart into it, you’ll forget the pain and the suffering.”

Year after year performing with Shen Yun, he gained a new understanding of what traditional Chinese culture means. “It’s not just about the surface forms. It’s not about wearing han fu [ancient Chinese clothing] or speaking Chinese. It’s about your thinking, your morals, and whether they measure up to traditional Chinese culture’s norms of propriety,” he said.

For Mr. Pan, a dance piece in Shen Yun’s 2018 tour, called “Awaken,” especially left a deep impression on him. He played a general who had ended many people’s lives. One day, he suddenly realizes the weight of his sins and decides to become a monk. People from his past try to dissuade him from the path of cultivation, but in the end, he remains resolute. Mr. Pan reflected that the character’s journey paralleled his own. He experienced his own share of rivalries and conflicts, and one day realized that these distractions were holding him back. He asked himself, “Can I choose another path? Can I give up all the negativities?”

An Intellectual Endeavor

Not only did Mr. Pan feel a profound change in himself through embodying righteous values, but he also wanted to delve deeper into the philosophical underpinnings of his art form. He discovered that what is considered beautiful—the study of aesthetics—in classical Chinese dance principles had its roots to Chinese philosophy.

For example, one rule all dancers must know is that movements should be circular and round. “[Chinese philosopher] Zhuangzi once said, ‘Everything begins and ends in an unbroken ring, though we do not know why that is so. This is what is called the way of heaven.’ It means that the natural path is the path laid out by the divine,” Mr. Pan said.

To be a well-rounded artist, it was imperative that he not only have physical strength and prowess, but also be a learned individual. “Learning the history is essential to improving my dance and to my self-cultivation,” he said, adding that a dancer may be limited by his physical condition and its deterioration over time, but the search for knowledge is unlimited.

What brings Mr. Pan the greatest joy is to be able to spread that knowledge through his role as a performer at Shen Yun. “As long as I can keep moving, I will continue to dance,” he said.

The Epoch Times is a proud sponsor of Shen Yun Performing Arts.
Annie Wu joined the full-time staff at the Epoch Times in July 2014. That year, she won a first-place award from the New York Press Association for best spot news coverage. She is a graduate of Barnard College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.