NEW YORK—As a small child, Kexin Li got to see most of the biggest tourist attractions in China with her mom.
Li, 22, especially remembers Jiangnan, southern Chinese lands that include Shanghai and neighboring cities, as “one of the most beautiful places in China.”
While choreographing a dance for this year’s International Classical Chinese Dance Competition hosted by New Tang Dynasty Television, Li selected music that gave her the feeling of Jiangnan—”Lotus Leaves,” from a 2008 Shen Yun Performing Arts show. Her performance earned her an honorable mention.
This past weekend, 90 dancers drawn from Fei Tian College, a bilingual (Mandarin and English) school that promotes traditional culture, Shen Yun Performing Arts, and nine countries put on performances at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) Tribeca Performing Arts Center.
Forty of them made it to the finals.
In three consecutive days of preliminaries, semifinals, and finals, audience members had a glimpse of the lives of ancient Chinese generals and Tang Dynasty maidens, among many other figures in Chinese history.
The International Classical Chinese Dance Competition is one of a series of nine global competitions founded in 2007, with subjects including photography, oil painting, Han couture, culinary art, piano, violin, martial arts, and vocal.
The series is aimed at reviving traditional Chinese and Western culture.
The competition is split into four divisions—male and female junior for those younger than 18, and male and female adult. The top prize is $10,000, and runners-up can win $3,000 or $1,000.
This year, Peter Huang from Fei Tian Academy of the Arts took gold for the male adult division, while the female adult division saw four winners, Hsiao-Hung Lin, Miranda Zhou-Galati, Chen Chialin, and Zheng Daoyong, all from Shen Yun Performing Arts.
The male junior division saw two winners, Kenji Kobeyashi and Danny Li, and the female junior division saw two winners as well, Lian Xu, and Eden Zhu, all from Fei Tian.
Performers have a self-selected piece they must choreograph and wear a costume for and a technical portion, where no costume is worn.
This year was 20-year-old Hsiao Hung Lin’s first time competing in the adult division. She laughed nervously, “It’s a higher level. The judges look at you with higher standards.”
Lin won in 2012 for the female junior division and again this year in the adult division. Compared to previous years, Lin said that this year she had matured.
“In the last few years, I wasn’t really aware,” said Lin. “I still had a child’s mentality. But this year, I’m more clear-minded and serious.”
Persecuted for Beliefs
Lin’s dance, “The Purity Within,” stood out to judge Chen Yongjia, who took first place in 2007 at the first International Classical Chinese Dance Competition. Chen graduated from Beijing Central National University and is a renowned veteran dancer.
“The Purity Within” is about the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners, who follow a spiritual discipline based on the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. Falun Gong has been banned in China since 1999.
Lin displayed a lotus hand gesture four times throughout her piece, and each time communicated a different feeling and mindset.
“It was very beautiful and the inner charm was expressed well,” said Chen. “She executed the main points of classical Chinese dance well.”
Lin, who came to America from Taiwan in 2008 and began performing with Shen Yun in 2009, explained her choice of dance: “Many groups, like Christians, for instance, put on performances. They perform near Christmas time—dances and shows about Jesus. So I thought, Christians were persecuted in the past … well, there’s a modern day persecution going on right now.”
Many of the competitors practice Falun Gong alongside heavy dance schedules. The meditation exercises and moral principles align with the fundamentals of classical Chinese dance.
Judge and company manager for Shen Yun Performing Arts International Vina Li said, “A dancer is not just receiving training, but they’re also training their minds and improving their conduct. So when the audience looks at this person, they feel very positive.”
Li also created her dance, “Drifting Lotus,” thinking along the same lines as Lin. Her dance expressed nostalgia for home and was inspired by a Tang Dynasty poem.
“We can’t go back right now,” said Li of her and the thousands of Falun Gong practitioners who are blacklisted from returning to China for fear of torture. Li and her mother left China when she was 12, immigrating to New Zealand.
For this year’s competition, the dancers are of higher caliber, their techniques sharper—but most of all, their inner feeling is purer, said the judges.
“Every year, the standard is raised,” said Chen, “Technique makes the dance more dazzling, but it’s the inner feeling that moves people and leaves them warm.
“This year’s artists grasp the inner meaning of each dance better.”
Chen noted another artist that caught his eye: 22-year-old Alvin Song, from Shen Yun Performing Arts, who performed “A Hero’s Heart Never Grows Old,” which earned him a bronze award. The piece is about an old distinguished general who longs to return to the battlefield, but realizes his age. The character is inspired by a poem about Cao Cao, a genius warlord in the Han Dynasty.
Song’s technique and expression were both strong, said Chen.
He added, “With his body, he was able to accurately portray the old general’s feelings better than the other contestants.”
Columbia music lecturer Deborah Bradley-Kramer, 53, brought her son, Jonah, 6, to see the competition.
Both of them enjoyed the show, said Bradley-Kramer.
“It just makes you feel like you’re part of the story. And really, it seems very sincere. Some of them seemed to be so convincing actresses,” she added.
“It’s a very new world for me,” she said, “I would absolutely be more interested in seeing much more of this.”
Additional reporting by NTD Television.