Classical Chinese dancer Miranda Zhou-Galati says one of the most interesting roles she has played over the course of her 13 years with Shen Yun Performing Arts is that of a bodhisattva statue.
In Eastern traditions, bodhisattvas are deities who help people. In the dance Awakening, a military general felt wrenching remorse when he saw the mourning widow and children of a man he had killed in battle. He decided to stop fighting and become a monk. His profound piety caused miracles to occur around him, with a bodhisattva statue (played by Zhou-Galati) coming to life and revealing to him splendid heavenly scenes.
“I wanted to convince the audience that I was truly made of stone,” she says. “It was a challenge to stand still for more than a minute at the beginning of the dance, trying not to flinch or even blink.”
She did convince them she was a statue. “I recall the audience gasping the moment when I came to life in this dance piece, and at those moments, I felt it was truly rewarding.”
Zhou-Galati helped the audience experience the miracle themselves, not just watch as the general-turned-monk experienced it. She also did her best to truly embody the divine compassion of the bodhisattva, to make it as though a real bodhisattva was on stage in front of them.
It’s important to become the character, not just play the character, she says. “I don’t want to be me, Miranda, dancing this character. I really have to dive into the character’s feelings or emotions at the time. It has to have conviction.”
Shen Yun Performing Arts creates a whole new programme each year, bringing to the stage Chinese legends, modern heroic tales, and scenes inspired by China’s diverse landscapes and ethnic cultures. Zhou-Galati is one of Shen Yun’s most veteran dancers, and she has played numerous characters, from Mulan to the Lady of the Moon.
“Chinese classical dance has a lot of depth behind it; it’s formed through 5,000 years of Chinese culture,” Zhou-Galati says. China has been known as the “Celestial Empire” — a land where the divine and mortal once coexisted and where the culture is believed to be divinely inspired.
“I feel that connection to the divine and respect for the divine. … A lot of those connections are lost in modern times,” Zhou-Galati says. “I think that’s why it’s so important we revive this Chinese culture. … Its essence is very profound. I think that’s why a lot of people, when they see the show, they’re deeply moved.”
She recalls how audience members approached her and other dancers when they were boarding their tour bus in Long Beach, California. “[They] were embracing our dancers; with their eyes almost tearing up, they expressed their deep gratitude and said that Shen Yun is doing something truly great,” she says. “They expressed how the show gave them hope.”
The name “Shen Yun” means “the beauty of divine beings dancing.” Maturing as a dancer has helped Zhou-Galati focus more on truly becoming one of those divine beings onstage. “At the beginning you need the basics — flexibility, form, and postures have to be accurate — but I think after a while, to improve, one must mature in performance, to really become the character.”
When Zhou-Galati plays a heavenly being, it’s a profound experience to get into a role that’s entirely pure and good. Zhou does a spiritual cultivation practice called Falun Dafa, which is also rooted in ancient Chinese traditions. Its main principles are truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. “I feel if my self-cultivation improves, so does my performance,” she says. “I think whatever’s on the inside is shown to the audience, too.”
When she puts her mind to really becoming the heroes of China’s history, it also helps her improve herself. She internalizes some of the heroes’ traits, and they remain with her.
For example, Mulan is a figure in Chinese legend who protected her ailing father by dressing as a man and taking his place in a military draft. Mulan earned great honours in battle.
Zhou-Galati lists Mulan’s traits, which she had to embody to play her. “She showed courage, bravery, selflessness, filial piety, internal strength, perseverance, humble character, strength, and many more characteristics a real hero has.”
Zhou-Galati learned ballet as a child and always loved to dance. Now 26, she has been a professional classical Chinese dancer for about half her life. And she’s never considered any other path.
She grew up in Canada, the daughter of a Chinese mother and an Italian father. As a part of Shen Yun, she has enjoyed learning about the rich cultural heritage of China.
“Each year before the tour, I remind myself to cherish every show and every tour,” she says. “To keep the same motivation, ambition, and diligence as when I first took up this career path.”
“You can always portray the character more accurately, move with more fluidity, and execute techniques with more ease,” she says. “Dance is an art form that can never be satisfied, and one can always consistently improve oneself and gain new insights and wisdom.”