You might not fully grasp the Chinese proverb “Tenacity and adversity are old foes” until you see Angelia Wang dance.
Wang joined Shen Yun Performing Arts’ global tour in 2007. The physical and emotional challenges of the company’s busy schedule have fortified who she is—her inner grit—while simultaneously helping her hone her own craft of classical dance.
“Now I’m more aware of performing when dancing,” she says, noting that she immediately enters her roles during rehearsals. “It’s to show and express something for others, like a book or a painting.”
Onstage, Wang has the opportunity to play new roles every year, challenging her as a dancer to embody a broad spectrum of characters, personalities, and virtues. Wang’s performances have included an elegant lady of the Tang Dynasty, the fairy in the clouds who dances in the moonlight, a dignified princess of the Qing Dynasty, and historical figures from popular ancient Chinese legends, such as Mu Guiying, Chang’e, and Wang Baochuan. Each dance is like a microcosm—a cell—of China’s long history.
“To tell a story in a few minutes and to set up the character, you must move others emotionally,” Wang says. “Actively thinking about how to shape a character and how to make the moves look good are the hardest.”
18 painful years in five minutes
In the dance drama “The Cold Cave,” from the 2018 Shen Yun tour, Wang portrayed a character who echoed much of her own strong-willed personality. She played Wang Baochuan, the wife of Xue Rengui, the most famous Tang Dynasty general. After her husband left home to fight in battle, Wang Baochuan stayed alone in a cold cave for 18 years, faithfully awaiting his return. This ancient legend is one of the most widely circulated today.
“After I took this role, I kept listening to the accompaniment music to find the emotional points, and allow myself to reach the point that I would tear up every time I hear the music,” she says. In one of the scenes, it was icy cold, and Wang Baochuan was so poor she only had grass to eat. When her parents visited her to bring her back home, “I had to show the grievances and sadness of waiting when I saw my mother. I had to tear up.”
At the end of the story, Xue Rengu returned from almost two decades of war. As her husband, grateful for her fidelity, lovingly placed a cloak on her, “I had to come to tears of happiness and excitement. I could not act as Wang Baochuan; I had to become Wang Baochuan.”
To reach these dramatic climaxes, Wang studied numerous historical books and watched many dramas about this iconic couple.
“She was a graceful lady of noble birth, with extraordinary insights and visions. She was attracted by Xue’s character and talent; she insisted on marrying him even though she had to leave her wealthy home,” Wang says. “A woman with such a vision will not be easily defeated when suffering hardships and difficulties. So the Wang Baochuan I performed was tenacious.”
Tenacity is a virtue that hit home for Wang. As a young teenager, when Wang chose to leave her home in China and go abroad to dance, her mother thought the life of a dancer would be too difficult.
“I insisted,” Wang says. “I am responsible for my choice, and sometimes must remember why I made the choice in the beginning. It’s because I love to dance. Then why do I feel bitter and tired? Even Wang Baochuan, since she loved Xue Rengui, could wait for him for 18 years!”
Wang’s solo dance from “The Cold Cave” showcased her strength, technique, and raw emotions; it’s become a crowd favourite. The three-dimensional digital backdrop illustrates a dilapidated cave covered with snow. Cold and hungry, Wang Baochuan waits for her husband’s return. She has no food, so she’s forced to eat grass in the yard to survive. Wang expresses Wang Baochuan’s heart full of sorrow with exaggerated, dramatic techniques, expressing her suffering.
At the piece’s climax, Wang kicks her leg behind her and arches her back, perfectly displaying the same dance move captured in Shen Yun’s logo. The technique is like a Daoist yin-yang, embodying opposing forces of strength and grace, power and flexibility.
“This move has more of an outburst of strength than other female dance moves,” she says.
The quick explosive movement is timed with the high point of emotion; Wang’s back leg and head meet, synchronized with her emotional release, and the crowd’s own catharsis.
“At the point that the emotion has accumulated to a threshold, ready to be released, you need to have a visual impact from the body to match with your emotional outburst,” she says.
Down to a fine art
To vividly and authentically depict such noble historical figures, Wang immerses herself in traditional Chinese culture. In addition to her daily dance practice and program rehearsal, she also studies other art forms, such as calligraphy, to improve her insight into traditional Chinese culture.
“Calligraphy and classical Chinese dance inherit the same culture. They influenced each other in the great circle of traditional Chinese culture,” she says.
“Both pursue beauty from the inside to the outside, and emphasize transformation and tension—going backward first when wanting to go forward; going right first when wanting to go left; going downward first when wanting to go upward.”
Wang says the strokes of calligraphy work in the same way, going first in an opposite way. Both classical Chinese calligraphy and dance embody “opposing principles of yin and yang—straight and circling, push and pull—which exist only in Chinese culture.”
Every day, Wang repeats the same movements, dancing and writing calligraphy. As each movement deepens her experience within the art forms, she inadvertently hones her will and disposition.
“From calligraphy, I realize that you can’t rush success. In forming the ink, we must be down-to-earth, step by step. The mind should be peaceful, not up and down, and you shouldn’t suffer from loss,” she says. “Good art relies on accumulation—a solid skill that’s mastered over time. When you really master it, people will naturally see it on the stage and paper.”
At present, Wang is a graduate student mastering in dance performance at Feitian University. Her life has become even busier than before, balancing school with professional dancing. With a smile, she says she doesn’t even have time to consider whether it is too much or too hard.
But no matter how busy Wang is, on a rainy day, she’ll stay indoors, watering her mind and heart with traditional Chinese poetry and biographies of her favourite characters. The classical literary art cultivates her subtle emotions and tender side, balancing her natural tenacity.
“People are multi-faceted, and I also have a sentimental side,” she says.