If poetry could come to life, you’d find Miranda Zhou-Galati dancing. As one of Shen Yun Performing Art’s lead dancers, her craft sings like a sonnet composed from her soul — authentic, innocent, noble, merry. Like an ageless poet whose words transcend time, Zhou-Galati’s fine art highly heightens reality. She lives in the moment, perfectly present, both here and not here, guiding the audience on a similar voyage — seated in the theatre, yet awake somewhere else far away.
“Being humble is extremely important,” says Zhou-Galati, the 2014 adult and 2010 junior champion of NTD Television’s International Classical Chinese Dance Competition. “You can learn a lot from ancient Chinese culture and other traditional cultures, like the way poets walk and talk reflects their character.”
An artist’s focus on inner nature, called bearing, or the yun of Shen Yun, is the core distinction between classical Chinese dance and other forms. Yun has a different starting point — it’s a journey inside-out. Zhou-Galati’s connection to her spirit while dancing is so clear, true, unmistakable, I was surprised to hear it didn’t begin that way.
Born in Toronto to an Italian father and Chinese mother, yun was a new concept for Zhou-Galati, who studied ballet in her youth.
She recalls the first time seeing Shen Yun (and classical Chinese dance). “Oh, I loved it!” she says. “It was so beautiful and had much more meaning in the physical art form — it had this righteous energy to it.”
Since that first experience, Zhou-Galati has learned the deeper roots of Shen Yun and its mission. “The culture is being destroyed in modern-day China by the Communist Party, and it’s very important for Shen Yun to revive this culture, not only for the present but for the future.”
Though worlds apart in distance, she saw her Western and Asian heritage as being much closer in essence.
“I feel like the Italian Renaissance was similar to classical Chinese culture, where people had more of a connection to the heavens,” she says, especially when soaking in the Sistine Chapel and Basilica. “You can see that through their paintings — if they’re pointing upwards or when you see a halo behind someone’s head. Faith, belief and connection to the divine were obvious in ancient times, though not too much in modern times.”
Enamoured by classical Chinese dance and the troupe’s mission, she applied to the New York-based Fei Tian Academy of the Arts, where many Shen Yun dancers take their first “fluttering” steps — the magical way classical Chinese dancers glide across the stage. Her father, a successful lawyer in Canada, wasn’t thrilled to have his daughter — a straight-A student — pursue a career in dance. But Zhou-Galati couldn’t ignore her calling, and with her mom’s support, left home. (Of course, later when Mr. Galati saw his daughter dance, he became her biggest fan — and marketer — inviting many friends to the show every year.)
“At the beginning, it was a bit tough because being one of the few non-fully Chinese dancers, I had to look for that inner bearing,” says Zhou-Galati. “That was one of my biggest challenges.”
Though cultivating yun tested the young dancer, it was also the component of classical Chinese dance that intrigued her most. “A performer’s inner bearing is really amazing,” she says. “Chinese classical dance can be used to portray almost anything, any character, even different emotions with different facial expressions, which I think is very, very different from ballet. I think that these two art forms are extremely different, actually.”
Cultivating yun often began with books. “I would try to learn more about Chinese culture, Chinese classical dance and the history behind it,” says Zhou-Galati. “When portraying a certain character, I’d learn what makes that character unique, how she holds herself, and what her emotions were at the time.”
What always rang true in learning these legends was that “people really stressed moral values and moral characteristics — a very important part of Chinese classical dance and culture.”
Once she understood the context of the character, she’d integrate mind with movement. “I would try different movements and seek the meaning behind them.” She’d ask herself, “What is this movement trying to reflect, or what kind of expression is it trying to reflect at that moment?”
Zhou-Galati would then integrate the intellectual and physical preparation, adopting the perspective that she didn’t simply represent the character — she was the character herself, as any pretending would be disingenuous.
With Zhou-Galati’s soft, graceful demeanour, it’s easy to see why “flowy fairy-like heavenly characters” come so naturally to the delightful dancer. But one legendary character from ancient China (and even in today’s pop culture) didn’t.Mulan.
“Mulan has more strength and portrays courage and a warrior-like field,” says Zhou-Galati, who spent endless hours in the library and in front of a mirror practicing this stalwart heroine. “It was more challenging not only for the inner bearing and feelings, but from the artform as well — the movements for Mulan showed great strength and were more crisp, fast and strong, which I wasn’t used to.”
As a major competition neared, Zhou-Galati was faced with one more hurdle, something only the heart of Mulan could help her overcome. “During rehearsal, I did a jump, and when I landed, I twisted my ankle,” she says. “I was on the floor and realized, it’s my own body — I control it, so if I think I’m fine, I’m fine. I got up, and even though my foot felt extremely floppy and the bone felt like Jell-O, I just finished the dance. In Chinese culture, we say mind and body are one, so if your mind is strong then your body should be fine.”
Refusing to give in to injury, Zhou-Galati entered the competition as Mulan. “I could feel the bone and the muscle were still strained. But I thought I should be more selfless, stop thinking about my own pains, just tolerate, persevere and get through it, because what we’re doing is just so meaningful,” she says, reflecting on Shen Yun’s mission to revive classical Chinese dance.
She went on stage, and the pain subsided when she devoted herself to a single thought: “I need to give the audience the best performance I can.” She did and took home gold.
Over the years, despite pain, fatigue, and other hardships, nothing compares to her bond with the theatre-goers. “I definitely try to connect with the audience while I’m on stage,” she says. “If they feel touched, I can see them crying, or if they’re happy, I can see huge smiles on their faces. For the audience, it’s something very grand — it feels like some sort of hope for humanity.”