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A dancer’s discovery in portraying a Chinese folktale of waiting for her loved ones for 18 years

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General Rengui Xue was one of the most decorated generals during the Tang Dynasty. He was an honest man who rose from poverty to become one of the most famous military generals in Chinese history. Emperor Taizong once said he was more excited about appointing Rengui Xue as his general than conquering Liaodong (an area in Northeast China).

Shen Yun Performing Arts principal dancer Cheney Wu would encounter this famous general in 2018 while playing General Rengui Xue’s wife in a dance called “Devotion.”
“[Devotion] has a lot of Chinese culture in it,” Wu says. “We learn about a lot of [historical Chinese] characters that all are very devoted to what they do; they don’t change their loyalty once they set their mind to it.”

Wu’s teacher was an award-winning dancer whose talent, hard work, and character inspired Wu. “She was always really modest; I wanted to be like her,” Wu says. The training prepared Wu for her most challenging role, “Devotion,” which stretched the young dancer emotionally and physically.

Wu joined Fei Tian Academy as its youngest dancer, and the rigorous training was a significant adjustment for her. “In the beginning, I cried every day,” she says. “Growing up in American society, I wasn’t used to such intense pain.” However, it was the soft strength of the older dancers and the gentle encouragement of her teacher that helped Wu persevere.

Wu performs her most challenging role yet—as General Rengui Xue’s wife in Devotion. © Shen Yun Performing Arts

In the dance, Rengui Xue is introduced just as an ordinary, poor man, before he became a famous general. Wu played a high-born woman in the process of choosing her husband. In ancient China, there was a custom for a woman to throw a silk ball to the man she wants to marry.

Many aristocrats and scholars lined up in hopes of marrying Wu’s character, but none of them impressed her. Instead, she saw Rengui Xue, a simple man helping someone up who was in need.

Wu says she is most happy and free when she’s dancing onstage. © Shen Yun Performing Arts

Impressed by this man’s good heart, Wu threw the silk ball to Rengui Xue, infuriating her family for choosing such an impoverished man.

They fell in love and married against her family’s wishes, and Wu’s character—Rengui Xue’s wife—was banished from her family. Xue and his wife were very poor, living in a yaodong, or “house cave,” an earth shelter carved out of a hillside common in the plateaus of Northern China.

Wu says the duet with her character’s husband in the house cave was the most emotionally complex aspect of the dance. “I imagined myself [being in her position]—I used to be really rich… so by choosing [my husband], I gave away everything for him. Now I’m sending him away,” Wu says. “I feel like my heart would be so torn between the different emotions.”

“Just because we were together, we were happy,” Wu says. Suddenly, a war started in China, interrupting their happy married life. The wife knew Xue’s intelligence and heart, and that he could be of great help to the emperor. She urged him to join the war effort, even if that meant they’d be apart. She promised to wait for his return.

It was challenging to portray this emotional complexity while at the same time having it effortlessly flow together. Wu and the lead male dancer would even synchronize their breathing to look like two unified parts of a whole. Wu says if the duet isn’t extremely well-rehearsed and isn’t synchronized, “it looks just like two people dancing next to each other, and that’s not a duet.”

Dancer Cheney Wu was moved by the devotion she learned about in ancient Chinese legends. / Photo by Binggan Zhang

The complex emotions in the duet weren’t the only challenging aspects for Wu. As Rengui Xue departed for war, a painful period of waiting began for his wife—18 long years.

Wu expresses this lonely time in her solo dance, which she describes as one of “the most difficult female roles of that year.” Her routine included jumps, flips, and spins, repeated over and over. “When I first got it, I didn’t really know how to handle it.” At first, Wu diligently practiced the techniques, but her efforts didn’t impress the choreographer.

“You can’t just frown when you’re sad and smile when you’re happy. You have to have meaning underneath, and show it,” the choreographer told Wu. “You’re too shallow.”Wu also asked other dancers and teachers to critique her dancing. She would write down their suggestions in a notebook and carefully review the notes. “I would try to make sure it was different from the last time I danced it,” she says.

Determined to improve, and to better understand her character, Wu went to the library and read about Rengui Xue’s wife. Wu even figured her character likely made hand-pulled noodles for her husband in the house cave, since he was from Shanxi Province in the north.

“You have to know your character, even the small things,” Wu says. She would listen to the dance music throughout the day, thinking about the moves and how they should be portrayed.

The depth of devotion the wife had for her husband, waiting 18 years, also touched Wu. “Even though you don’t know if he’s still alive or not. You don’t know if he’s going to come back,” she says.“[It] really left a deep impression [on me].”

Wu continued to put in extra hours, onstage, offstage, with and without her dance partner. The next time the choreographer saw Wu perform, he stood up and said, “It’s completely different from last time.”

Wu believes that she improves her dancing when she betters her moral character. Dress by Max Mara / Photo by Binggan Zhang

Onstage, the passing of those 18 lonely years was visually dramatic, as the 3-D backdrop changed seasons, over and over, showing the passing of many years. Leaves grew, changed colour, and fell; snow gathered, and then came a new spring.

Wu’s performance was charged with deep-seated sadness and hope. She performed large leaps, flips, and spins—the difficulty of her techniques reflected the volume of her pain, doubt, and loneliness.

Her performance received many warm reviews from the audience. “That’s when I felt like all of my hard work paid off,” Wu says.

In the final scene, Rengui Xue finally returns, now a famous general. He goes down on one knee in front of his wife, in a sign of utmost respect and gratitude; he thanks her for never giving up on him, and for her unwavering fidelity.

The dance “Devotion” taught Wu about the personal sacrifice it would take to embody the character for that role. It also helped her understand how to keep faith and stay strong in difficult situations, such as waiting without knowing when it would be over.

A quote from C.S. Lewis also inspired Wu during this process: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”

“I realized that it’s not about thinking of yourself as not good,” Wu says. “Just keep practicing, because there’s always room for improvement.

Even the best of the dancers, they always practice.”From ancient China to today, it seems that when you do remain devoted, the rewards will be forever remembered.

“Life is not always smooth sailing. As long as you know why you’re here, you can overcome anything,” she says. “There’s no end to how good you can be.”

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