A self-proclaimed introvert, Evangeline Zhu took no pleasure from speaking to strangers and had little desire to be in the limelight. But now, she’s found herself center stage—with thousands staring at every move she makes.
“For dance, you have to use your body to express your emotions or a certain message in your heart that you want to deliver. If you are really introverted, then your dance will not touch people, so I have to open up my heart to communicate with the audience. Then my dance can really impact people,” says Zhu.
Zhu is a principal dancer for Shen Yun Performing Arts, a world-renowned classical Chinese dance company. The group’s mission aims to revive 5,000 years of traditional Chinese culture—much of which was lost when communism took over.
Zhu says she’s personally felt the power of that culture. Now she wants to pass on the wisdom and messages contained in it to audience members around the world.
She explains that her desire to share it transcends her own personality, physical restrictions, and even the pain of classical dance training.
“I really like reading some ancient books. For example, I really like the sayings of Mencius. ‘When Heaven is about to place a great responsibility on one man, it always first frustrates his spirit and will, exhausts his muscles and bones.’ I think this saying can really inspire people. That is, when you want to do something, in fact, there will be corresponding difficulties in front of you. If you can break through the difficulty, you will find that the opposite side of that difficulty is a very bright world.”
Dancers often say you must dance from your heart. For Shen Yun dancers like Zhu, their movements quite literally originate from the center of their bodies.
“At Shen Yun, we use a lost technique called ‘shen-dai-shou,’ or the body leads the arms, and ‘kua-dai-tui,’ or the hips lead the legs. This means that the strength that powers your upper body’s movements originates from the center of your body. Then it extends to your arms, then to your fingers.”
“In this way, the bearing of Chinese classical dance becomes more grand. The upper body posture feels more expansive and gives people a very bright feeling. This art form is helpful in expressing a character’s inner emotion because you start from your heart, from the center of your body, so it can drive inner emotion, and then the audience can receive that emotion.”
Techniques aside, to best portray a character, a dancer also has to relate to the character’s feelings.
But this can be challenging. In one example, Zhu plays the Chinese goddess of the moon. As a human, how can one relate to a divine figure?
“Because she is a being that’s above the human level, her heart will certainly not be like a human being with so many emotions and desires. Her state of mind is probably very peaceful, very compassionate. So when performing this dance, my heart won’t fluctuate too much. I will just try to display something purely beautiful.”
She describes learning to achieve that state through studying tradition and self-cultivation. For dancers, this inner mind—or what’s deep in one’s heart—determines what type of feeling their performances deliver to the audience.
“It’s related to every thought one has about oneself in daily life. The dancers of Shen Yun are purifying themselves every day, bringing their thoughts back to righteousness step by step.”
Zhu said this kind of self-improvement, plus the content Shen Yun presents, is why audience members often report feeling hopeful and uplifted after watching the show.
“For example, when the opening scene begins, they see a heavenly world with God in it. I think the audience will be very surprised when they see it. Because maybe in everyday society, people fight with and scheme against each other, one may feel that he lives a meaningless life inside. But when he sees a world that is completely different from his daily life, and it’s a very beautiful, heavenly world, all the bad things in his mind are swept away. He feels that what he sees is bright and beautiful. A sense of pure goodness and righteousness will arise in his heart, and he’ll be able to take the low points that he encounters in life very lightly because he knows that there are higher beings looking after us. So he may have a more positive attitude in facing life.”
Zhu says she’s always felt sad that Shen Yun can’t perform in the birthplace of traditional Chinese culture. That’s because China’s current communist regime won’t accept people of faith.
“The culture propagated by the Chinese Communist Party is based on atheism. In this respect, it has abandoned the most fundamental thing about human beings. But the traditional culture we are talking about is the belief in God. The ancient Chinese people were respectful of the heavens and believed in the divine, and they had a yearning for the divine. That’s why many Chinese arts in the early stages always portray God. And in the West too, they portrayed the nobility, greatness, and solemnity of divine beings.”
Despite today’s political clashes between the Chinese regime and the western world, this may explain why many outside China still resonate with values from ancient China.
Zhu says the inspiration of and appreciation for good arts originate from the same place.
“I think that dance that inspires people to be positive or to aspire to a higher realm is beautiful. The most important point of art is that it can purify people’s hearts, enhance their divinity, and bring them closer to God.”