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Shen Yun Dancer Marilyn Yang Revives Legendary Tales

The gold medallist sheds insight into traditional Chinese culture

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“During tough times, we have people who come and watch the show, and they say they came in one person and they’re leaving the theatre changed. They know they’re going to be better people afterwards.”
—Marilyn Yang

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Shen Yun Performing Arts dancer Marilyn Yang.

Marilyn Yang had a simple wish as she stepped onto the competition stage at the 2021 NTD International Classical Chinese Dance Competition—to honour the story of Wang Zhaojun, one of the most celebrated beauties in Chinese history.

Wang lived more than two thousand years ago and was initially recruited as a palace maiden at the court of Emperor Yuan of the Western Han Dynasty.

In 33 BC, Huhanye, the leader of the Xiongnu nomadic tribes, requested to marry a lady of the imperial court as part of his peace agreement with the emperor. Most young women were unwilling to leave the comforts of the palace to accept the rougher lifestyle of the Xiongnu, but Wang understood the importance of this alliance and stepped forward to volunteer.

When he saw her great beauty, Huhanye was so grateful to the Emperor that he swore firm loyalty to him. Their marriage brought peace and stability to the region for years to come.

“Wang Zhaojun was so magnanimous and generous. She gave up her home for a greater cause—to have her country and people prosper,” says Yang.

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Marilyn Yang earned a gold medal at the 2021 NTD International Classical Chinese Dance Competition for
her nuanced performance of ancient beauty Wang Zhaojun.

The dancer’s choreography for the competition was a multi-layered interpretation of the story, capturing Wang’s wish to balance her personal desires with her duties. Yang’s movements ranged from gentle to bold, capturing the beauty’s conflicting emotions. Her eyes too, told the story through their gaze.

“I wanted to show how she would live her life and adapt to the changes she experienced. She had a husband. She had children, and she had a nation on her shoulders. She took that in, and it became something of strength in her,” Yang says.

Her heartfelt portrayal of Wang’s story earned Yang a gold medal at the global dance competition.

Shen Yun Performing Arts dancer Marilyn Yang.
Shen Yun Performing Arts dancer Marilyn Yang.

Reviving traditional Chinese culture

Presenting the stories of historical figures is a familiar challenge for Yang, who is a lead dancer for Shen Yun Performing Arts.

Based in New York, the artistic company was founded in 2006 by overseas Chinese artists whose mission is to revive traditional Chinese culture through performances of dance and music.

Shen Yun dancers train hard to present this traditional culture, which many Chinese people believe to have been divinely inspired.

“If you want to bring back what the divine gave to humankind, it’s not something easy to achieve,” Yang says.

Although China’s traditional culture spans 5,000 years, it’s been mostly lost today due to the destructive policies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The Cultural Revolution (1966-76) played a notable role in this destruction.

“Mao [Zedong] got rid of the Four Olds—old buildings, old statues, old books, old heritage. They [Mao and the CCP] tried to destroy the ties that humans had to the divine. This also shows why we’re here at this stage in society today,” she says.

“The CCP replaced traditional culture with something that it could use, which is Party culture. So the dance of the professional performance groups from China isn’t pure anymore.”

“What we’re trying to bring back is something that they tried so hard to destroy during the Cultural Revolution.”

Yang says that audiences are usually surprised to hear that Shen Yun isn’t allowed to perform in China.

“People express disbelief because they see how beautiful, glorious, and incredible this culture is. Any country should be extremely proud of its history, yet this is something that’s buried in China,” Yang says.

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Marilyn Yang finds joy and meaning in classical Chinese dance.

Purity of mind

In bringing back this heritage, Yang says that Shen Yun performers study the mindset and virtues of China’s legendary figures.

“I think about what I would do if I were in their shoes. Would I be as selfless and heroic as them?” says Yang.

She and her fellow artists strive to uphold these lofty moral standards in their own daily lives. “I think it really helps that we’re practitioners of Falun Dafa—we’re able to keep a calm mindset,” Yang says.

Falun Dafa, also known as Falun Gong, is a Chinese meditation practice based on the principles of Truthfulness, Compassion, and Tolerance. Yang hopes that Shen Yun’s performances inspire audiences to reflect upon these values in their own lives.

“The purpose of our art is to bring back important principles, to revive a lost heritage, and to show its beauty to people,” Yang says.

The young dancer feels especially encouraged when people leave the theatre feeling uplifted.

“During tough times, we have people who come and watch the show, and they say they came in one person and they’re leaving the theatre changed. They know they’re going to be better people afterwards.”

“It’s not just life-changing for the audience. It’s life-changing for us because we’re making a difference in people’s lives,” Yang says.

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Shen Yun dancer Marilyn Yang brings audiences the beauty and goodness of traditional Chinese culture.

Classical Chinese dance: A perfect art form

Classical Chinese dance aims for artistic perfection and beauty while still allowing for individual expressiveness.

“Chinese dance is like flowing water. Everyone has his own understanding, and there’s no limit to it. People are always diving deeper [into this art form] to make it better without changing it,” Yang says.

Shen Yun is also reviving an ancient Chinese dance technique called “the body leads the hands, and the hips lead the legs.”

“It’s a lost technique, and it’s incredible. We’re honoured that we’re being taught this in Shen Yun Performing Arts,” Yang says.

The technique teaches the dancers to begin their movements from the centre of the body, which increases the quality and expressiveness of the performances.

“It makes your emotions clear and your technique better. You jump higher and you spin faster. It’s something that benefits every aspect of our dance.”

The centre is also where the heart is. “It’s incredibly expressive when you move from your heart and everything comes through your heart,” Yang says.

People in the audience can immediately sense the impact of Shen Yun’s performances.

“We have audience members who say they see so much emotion in these dancers. They might be sitting in the very last row, but they can feel it. They can feel it just by the way the dancer is breathing,” Yang says.

From her experience, classical Chinese dance is an art form with no barriers.

“We have incredible reviews from all cultures because it’s so expressive and so powerful. Just by dancing on stage, we can give so much to an audience,” Yang says.

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 111

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