To see Michelle Ren dance is like watching a fairy play among flowers. Each movement is an ode to accuracy and softness, lightness and strength. She appears freed within classical Chinese dance, and imbues every beautiful moment with subtlety and depth.
Ren’s talents were officially introduced to the West at the NTD International Classical Chinese Dance Competition in 2007. Representing Fei Tian Academy of the Arts, she performed a piece called “Lotus Song,” winning the junior women’s championship. With her ethereal flexibility and elegant movement, she had the New York audience in the palm of her hand. After her win, giants in the dance world stood up and took notice, not the least of which was Shen Yun Performing Arts of New York, where she now resides as head choreographer and lead dancer.
In her years on tour with Shen Yun, her amazing aptitude for spinning, jumping, bending, and leaning produced standing ovations after performances. Through her, many were introduced to the infinite charm and rich cultural heritage of classical Chinese dance.
With a super-flexible body, Ren stepped into the world of “no pain, no gain” rhythmic gymnastics at age 6 and won fourth at the national Chinese Gymnastics All-Around Competition a few years later. At 12, she entered the Chinese dance world and became accomplished very soon, winning titles in national championships and competitions. But despite her skills and public recognition, Ren could not seem to get herself onstage into the classical shows she wanted.
“Because many traditional things in mainland China have been destroyed after the Cultural Revolution,” Ren told Taste of Life, “people are no longer interested in classical culture; there are few opportunities to perform onstage. I also felt it becoming more and more difficult to improve my dance skills because no one in China pays attention to the heritage of orthodox Chinese dance anymore.”
Ren looked visibly pained after discussing the current state of China’s art world. Turning to the present day, her mood brightened.
“Here there are artists from around the world,” she said, outside a Shen Yun practice room, “and everyone’s goal is the same: to carry forward the five thousand years of divine Chinese culture. We perform the most orthodox rendering of Chinese traditional values.”
A New Direction
It wasn’t until she discovered Fei Tian Academy of the Arts and Shen Yun that her dream stage unfolded before her.
“With Shen Yun, I not only push the limits of Chinese dance skills, I am beginning to understand traditional culture, its deep internal ideas and spiritual connotations. Those afford me a peaceful state of mind where I can focus on furthering the art form.” Ren said she feels very proud for taking the opportunity to perform classical Chinese dance in the most famous theaters in the world.
Over the years, while dancing with other top professionals in Europe, Australia, Asia, and everywhere in between, Ren matured in her art the way she so hoped to do. With a better understanding of traditional Chinese culture, she now revels in expressing its true heart. Dance knows no bounds, she believes; each performance is a reflection of a choreographer’s and a dancer’s inner world. But she did not always think this way.
“Before, I was obsessed with my own performance, which limited my potential. Now I realize that to reach the highest realm in dance you must forget your self. On one hand, the dancer needs to forget herself and just think from the audience’s point of view. On the other hand, she needs to fully devote all of her energy into the role each performance asks of her and just become that role.”
In classical Chinese dance, a dancer’s emotional bearing forms a three-part foundation along with form and technique. In a rare moment with perhaps one of the greatest dancers in the world, I listened to her describe what her own bearing feels like from the inside.
“At each performance, I made myself dissolve into the artistic realm the music conveyed, and reached a pure, beautiful, and sacred feeling. Through the classical “spins, jumps, bends, and leans,” I portrayed the character’s appearance, inner thoughts, and feelings.”
Wanting to hear more, I asked her about the Chinese character “Yun,” found in “Shen Yun,” which means “inner bearing.”
“Yun does not only connote the emotion of each dance move,” Ren said, “but more importantly spiritual expression. Shen Yun gives outlet to traditional Chinese values like benevolence, righteousness, wisdom, and trust. These are also a kind of Yun because they encompass a noble spirit which cannot be conveyed by simple action.”
Passing on the Tradition
As a dance teacher, Michelle Ren passes on everything needed for young dancers to become tomorrow’s elite.
Some are elite already, occupying the top ranks in Shen Yun’s body of dancers and collecting soaring accolades. When I asked about them, the seasoned instructor in Ren came out: “Each dancer has his or her own strengths. Someone who has more experience doesn’t necessarily have an advantage over others. He still needs to constantly improve and enrich himself.”
As difficult as it sounds to lead hundreds of youth toward excellence, Ren’s most challenging role may be as director and choreographer. Each year, Shen Yun launches an entirely new repertoire of programs and the majority are dance pieces, often placing all eyes on Ren at key moments in the year.
Ren hopes her work will convey peace, purity, and an uplifting mood. She trains bodies, hearts, and minds to deliver just that.
Alongside talent and experience, Ren has one more thing going for her choreography: the five thousand years of colorful stories, myths, and legends accumulated in Chinese culture—an inexhaustible well of material. Since classical Chinese dance vocabulary is so rich, it can be molded very articulately to portray complex characters within vivid scenes.
The dance most dear to her heart is “Awakening,” a story about the persecution of Falun Gong in China. In it, people who witness the persecution of an innocent practitioner follow their consciences and resist the policemen perpetrating the crime. Ren hears the audience cheering when the corrupt policemen are driven away by the brave souls and peace is restored. “Every artist wants to share with the audience the contents of his or her heart,” Ren said.
“Shen Yun has gone far beyond the pursuit of art and is instead trying to bring five thousand years of divine Chinese culture back and the meaning of life with it,” she said. “Shen Yun performers have a completely different state of mind under such inspiration.”
This article was originally published in Taste of Life magazine, tasteoflifemag.com