The stage curtain slowly opens, and a group of graceful maidens steps forward holding beautiful paper umbrellas. From among the ever-changing formations, a lead dancer emerges at centre stage. Standing on one leg, she raises the other straight up, bending to the side while raising her umbrella gracefully to the heavens. The audience bursts into applause.
“Dance is an art of suffering,” says Susan Zhou, the lead dancer in Umbrella, one of the dances from the stunning 2017 program of Shen Yun Performing Arts, the world’s leading classical Chinese dance group. “Dancers have to challenge their limit every day. Flexibility training is direct suffering — only by making yourself feel a bit more pain can you kick higher. The physical exhaustion is also suffering, and you still need to grit your teeth and keep on.”
Zhou is a lead dancer, team leader, and teaching assistant in one of Shen Yun’s five companies, which perform in over 100 cities worldwide. Despite the demanding, nonstop pressure of the global tour, Zhou’s inner strength and ability to forbear have not only separated her as an elite dancer, but have helped her more deeply connect with her colleagues.
Running past limits
Zhou moved from China to New Zealand with her parents when she was little, but she only had a vague impression of classical Chinese dance. Her true journey in classical Chinese culture began when she moved to New York to attend Fei Tian Academy of the Arts, the world’s premier Chinese classical dance school.
“At Fei Tian, we not only learn dance but also learn Chinese history and literature,” she says. “It makes me better understand the brilliant ancient Chinese culture.” One of her fondest memories is reading about Cao Zhi’s The Goddess of the Luo:
Her body soars lightly like a startled swan,
Gracefully, like a dragon in flight,
In splendour brighter than the autumn chrysanthemum,
In bloom more flourishing than the pine in spring;
Dim as the moon mantled in filmy clouds,
Restless as snow whirled by the driving wind.
Zhou says, “I think she is incredibly beautiful. The description gave me a specific image of a beautiful ancient Chinese woman for the first time. I believe what classical Chinese dance represents should be like her ultimate beauty and realm, so I have to keep working hard.”
Zhou has always found the fortitude to endure the training, a will that’s essential for a dancer.
“When an athlete is running, if he plans to run for five minutes, he might feel tired before running for five minutes,” she says. “But what if he plans to run for 20 minutes? He might get tired after running for 15 minutes. People should set a higher goal for themselves, so there will be motivation to go upward.”
In the 2017 tour, Zhou played one of the main roles in the dance drama The Enchanted Painting, a role that brought as much growth as difficulty. The story tells the tale of an evil red dragon that kidnaps the bride at her wedding. The groom then learns supernormal abilities from a Taoist wizard in order to rescue his wife. Finally, he slaughters the evil dragon and the couple reunites.
“I played the role of the bride,” Zhou says. “Although I was only on stage three times, the character had a different emotion each time, from the start with the joy and shyness of her wedding, to the sadness and despair of being imprisoned in the evil dragon’s cave, and to the touching surprise of reunion.”
But that rainbow of emotions was unfamiliar to Zhou, who has a fairly straightforward demeanor.
“At the beginning of the rehearsals, I could not act with the shyness of a traditional Chinese woman. Everyone said that I was more like a man than even the male dancers,” she says. “All movements in classical Chinese dance come from the inner emotions of the dancer. In The Great Preface to the Book of Poetry, it says when people express their emotions in language, it’s a poem; when people can’t express them in language, they will sigh; when sighing is not enough, they will sing; when singing is still not enough, they will dance. It means that dancing can express the strongest emotions of one’s heart. So if dancers don’t have intense emotions, how can they move their bodies to affect the audience?”
Since Zhou wasn’t authentically feeling these complex emotions, she searched deeply inside of herself for the blocks.
“I could say that I couldn’t act with shyness and sadness because my personality is straightforward,” she says. “But thinking more deeply, it was not the fundamental reason. The core reason was that my personality is too strong and unwilling to show the vulnerability of shyness and sadness to others.”
Traditional Chinese women were tender and feminine, while men were strong and masculine. After realizing she didn’t display traditional femininity, Zhou realized she would be playing the role for her own personal growth.
For example, when Zhou was first on stage, she wore a wedding gown and bridal veil that isn’t see-through, so brides can only see the floor.
“I needed to make a movement, slightly lifting the veil and peeping,” she says. “At first, I just worked hard on the movement and how to use my strength to express it in dance. But I couldn’t represent the emotion of the character at all.”
Teachers and classmates helped Zhou, explaining that ancient Chinese women never met their husbands before the wedding. But a bride might be curious about her husband’s looks, so she might want to peep at him, though, ultimately, her character was still too shy to do it.
“After I figured out the psychology of the character, I could completely put myself in the shoes of the character,” she says. “A lot can be expressed in just the movement of lifting the veil.”
From the joy and shyness of her wedding day to being kidnapped, separated from her husband, and taken to the devil’s cave, Zhou tried to find many ways to help herself express the huge shifts in emotion.
“The music of the dance was played by the erhu — I communicated a lot with the erhu musician,” Zhou says. “The sad music helped me, affecting my emotions.” She also remembered the sorrow of Shu Shi, missing his late wife in one of his poems:
Ten years, dead and living dim and draw apart.
I don’t try to remember,
But forgetting is hard.
Lonely grave a thousand miles off,
Cold thoughts, where can I talk them out?
Through all of her efforts, Zhou was able to unlock parts of herself and authentically perform the bride, a result of her own personal exploration and growth.
Teaching is learning
Two years ago, Zhou was appointed to be a team leader and teaching assistant because of her responsible and serious attitude, roles that helped her grow both as a dancer and as a person.
“When I came back from the tour with the position of team leader and teaching assistant, my classmates in other companies said I was like another person, having grown up all of a sudden, and the way I talked even became very mature,” she says. Zhou had been indifferent to student affairs, but with her new roles came new responsibilities, which weren’t easy for her.
“When I started teaching, I felt that no one followed what I said — I was quite upset. I thought it was because I was not mature enough, so others didn’t care,” Zhou says. “Later, I started to pay attention to how our teachers taught class. They would repeat the same advice five or six times, and then students would start being aware and try to correct it.”
The movements in classical Chinese dance seem simple, but many details, feelings, and understandings are difficult to express with language, so students struggle to grasp the essence of what’s being taught. Zhou says teachers need to repeat the same advice, allowing students to gradually improve.
“Everyone has a different way of thinking,” Zhou says. “I can’t judge others and require my own standard. Forcing others to accept my own viewpoints cannot solve problems — that sometimes even creates conflicts. I had always thought that students didn’t follow me, but it was actually that I didn’t express myself clearly enough, so they didn’t know what I meant.”
Zhou not only learned to be a better teacher, she learned to become a better student.
“After I started teaching, I finally knew what conditions teachers expect students to be in during class,” she says. “So now, when I attend a class, I try my best to behave how I expect my students to behave.”
As she cultivated her craft and became a mature leader of the group, Zhou’s bond grew even stronger with all of her fellow dancers, reminding her of the beloved martial arts novels she read growing up.
“Martial arts novels touched me not because of the wonderful fighting, but it was the loyalty and compassion of those chivalrous people,” she says. At Shen Yun, “We learn and rehearse together all day long; we understand and trust one another. We’ll help one another if there’s any problem. It’s like the loyalty between friends in martial arts novels. Sometimes we even know what the other person is thinking without saying anything. One time, I wanted a friend to go out with me. I just called her name, and she immediately answered: ‘Let’s go.’ And the place we wanted to go was the same!”
Zhou is also still enamoured by performing — being completely absorbed in a role, which is like being transferred to another dimension. In Umbrellas, for example, she held the paper umbrella gracefully on the stage, listening to sounds of raindrops hitting the umbrellas with the smell of fresh air, carefully dodging imaginary puddles on the stage.
“Whenever I finish a dance piece, the fatigue caused by intense performance seems to disappear. It’s like I just enjoyed a quiet, rainy day, which I love the most,” she says. Her smile and joy are undeniable. “I hope I can be completely immersed in dance as much as possible in the 2018 tour — it’s my current goal.”