The Chinese say that the beauty of art comes from the artist’s inner bearing, or yun. Victoria Zhou’s inner creativity flows like water into different channels — it rushes forth in the beauty and grace of dance, it streams out in poetry.
Her yun can also be still, like a deep pool with its surface shimmering in a gentle breeze. Her demeanour is cheery and lighthearted, yet she emanates the calm nobility of an ancient era, her poise refined through years of classical Chinese dance.
In 2008, as a talented 12-year-old, she left her home in Chicago to join Fei Tian Academy of the Arts in New York. This school trains many of the dancers for Shen Yun Performing Arts, a company that revives 5,000 years of Chinese culture through music and dance.
Her natural talent was so strong that within a year, Zhou was onstage touring the world with Shen Yun’s classical Chinese dancers, who are among the best in the world.
After nine years of Shen Yun performances, including solo dances, Zhou has changed course. She accepted an offer this year to be a Shen Yun emcee. Each performance is hosted by two bilingual emcees (one speaking Chinese, the other speaking English, or the local language). They speak to the audience between dances and solo musical performances, helping the audience appreciate the depth and intricacies of Chinese dance, music, culture, and history.
To improve her own inner growth and her art form as emcee, Zhou has been studying, reciting, and writing classical Chinese poetry. The emcee script includes excerpts of classical poems as well as phrases in classical Chinese.
“Classical Chinese just sounds like poetry, even when it’s not poetry. It’s much more fluid [than modern standard Chinese]. It’s understated, but with even more meaning,” she says. “I don’t want to be just studying poetry. … I want to be able to turn [reciting it] into an art as well.”
The Most Important Lesson From Dance
After her first dress rehearsal as an emcee, Zhou realized that her new role presents a new set of struggles, in some ways more challenging than the rigours of dancing. “I concluded that there were going to be even more heartstopping moments of fear backstage or onstage this year than in any of the years before. … [Physical challenges] don’t matter as much as the mental struggle,” she says, explaining that repetition and rest can heal many of the difficulties she faced while dancing.
She is now front and centre as the audience’s first impression of Chinese culture. While she’s always had an appreciation of the culture she’s represented onstage, as an emcee, she must understand the details and meanings even more clearly to convey them to the audience. “You’ve got to be able to connect with the audience, influence their experience, and make sure they understand as well as you do.”
She’s also had to adjust to not being surrounded by other dancers while onstage. “I’m a little more alone,” she says. But she still feels “the power of cooperation and teamwork” that is an essential part of Shen Yun.
“One chopstick is easy to snap, but a handful of chopsticks is hard to bend. I feel like no matter where I go and no matter what I’m doing, whether it’s working with two people or 20, the ability to work well with everyone can’t be underestimated. I’ve learned to respect everyone in the team and to trust them.”
Zhou says this is one of the greatest and most surprising qualities of the Shen Yun team. Stagehands at their venues have been shocked to see soloists, singers, principal dancers, and emcees all working backstage to help set up and pack up.
“It didn’t matter what they did in the show, we would just work as a team,” she says. “I guess stagehands aren’t used to this form of working together, but to me it’s something that’s really powerful.”
That special team spirit and sincere support for each other was the group’s saving grace on one night in particular. Zhou recalls that night, back when she was still dancing. Five minutes before curtain call, a dancer injured herself while warming up with acrobatic moves. “People were freaking out, and I was freaking in, and we didn’t know what to do,” she says.
The dancer couldn’t even walk. The choreographer and the stage and production managers decided to change the entire show. Each dancer performs in almost every dance, so when one person is missing, it changes everything.
Zhou was put into a fast-moving ethnic dance she had never even practiced before. “I was so glad that I learned it on the side, watching them rehearse. I was so glad I went to every rehearsal,” she says.
Everyone got a quick review of the routines and changes backstage while the emcees held the house for ten minutes. Then the curtain went up.
“I remember I could just sense how everyone was helping each other,” Zhou says. “I would be watching everyone, and then some people would be looking at me to make sure I knew exactly when to do the next move.”
“It was just the belief that we could get through this together and that we would do anything [for each other]. … It taught me to not only respect and bond with everybody; it taught me to trust everyone. I think this will carry over into my new job. … It will still be synchronized. It will be whole.”
The Power of the Classics
Zhou also believes that the inner fortitude she learned while dancing will carry over to her new craft as emcee. “This whole process of learning to dance has also been learning willpower and strength and morality in a way that I never imagined,” she says.
When Zhou arrived at Fei Tian, right away she realized an entirely different approach to dance, art, and life. “At Fei Tian, the teachers and professors teach you that morality as a basis is more important than whatever you can achieve just by struggling in the world. No matter how talented you are and no matter what you can do physically or your accomplishments, it doesn’t matter what you can do if at the core you’re not a truly good person,” she says.
Yun is such a central principle to the company, it’s part of its name. That inner bearing must be beautiful for the dancing to be beautiful; this tenet of classical Chinese dance is rooted in the Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism that has been so integral to Chinese culture throughout the ages.
Yun is about becoming a better person, but it’s also “an embodiment of your understanding of the culture,” she says. She has come to understand more deeply China’s legends and its art forms — classical Chinese dance, its ethnic dances, its music, its poetry, and even its ethnic clothing design. She sees the profound meanings they contain.
“If you can actually have some of that [culture] within you as yun, then it will come out no matter what form of art or medium you’re using,” she says. “It will show in your bearing, in your voice.” The audience can intellectually understand China’s culture as the emcees describe it, but Zhou says the audience can also feel that ancient culture as the yun emanates through the emcee’s voice.
One of Zhou’s greatest tools to help her develop yun has been studying ancient Chinese literature and poetry.
“People in general back then were more ingenuous and more faithful to their beliefs, to their honour. In order to uphold their honour, they would do all sorts of things that would be considered crazy today,” she says.
For example, in the classic novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the legendary military advisor Zhuge Liang had foreseen failure in the initiatives of his ruler, Liu Bei. But Zhuge Liang still honoured his oath of allegiance until his last breath.
“[Zhuge Liang] didn’t give up, because he had promised to advise and stay by and help Liu Bei until the end. He did that even though he knew that it would be unsuccessful,” Zhou says.
Reading about Chinese history’s most honourable men and women, Zhou has been able to recognize her own shortcomings. “I thought that if people found fault with me, it’s definitely because they misunderstand me and not because it’s actually my fault,” she says. “I thought I was being humble. … But then to other people, I could appear to be stubborn, uncompromising, and even disrespectful and disregardful of anyone else.”
When Zhou discovered this shortcoming and started to let go of her pride, she found an even deeper connection to herself, her yun, and ultimately, her craft. Improving her moral fibre was like unblocking tributaries to a vast river of creativity.
“When I’m onstage, since I’m part of Shen Yun and this team whose mission is to revive this wonderful culture, this 5,000 years of ancient tradition, if my motives are pure, I feel like the audience will be able to feel that genuine force,” she says.
Writer J.H. White
Photography by Bill Xie