Born in Beijing and now making her home in Toronto, Cindy Liu started dancing when she was seven, and performing at eleven. Today, she is a principal dancer with Shen Yun Touring Company and was getting ready for a show at Lincoln Center when we caught up with her.
Q: Cindy, you’ve been touring with Shen Yun Performing Arts since the first company was established in 2006. How have you seen the company change?
CL: Over the past six years I got to personally witness Shen Yun’s phenomenal success and expansion. In 2007, on our first world tour, we had only one dance company with one orchestra. We were no more than 100 people, and had to travel between four continents—North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia. Now we have three equally large companies and orchestras, and about 300 artists each year going on tour around the world.
I’ve also undergone a personal change from a fledgling to a principal dancer. In these six years many things have changed, but I still love the company as much as I did on the first day. I’m really proud to be in one of the world’s largest and most successful dance companies.
People often ask me if life in the company isn’t hard. Of course, it’s hard, because dancing is tiring, and traveling is tiring. But at the same time it’s also very fulfilling. Each time when I see the audience with their glistening eyes, their joyful expressions, and their bright smiles giving us standing ovations, I get an overwhelming feeling of joy and satisfaction in my heart. Each time I dance with Shen Yun, I feel I have done something worthwhile.
Q: Every year, Shen Yun produces a completely new show, and you’ve performed in many of the magnificent dances. Where does the inspiration for all these dances come from?
CL: From 5,000 years of Chinese culture. These 5,000 years have left behind countless legends, dramas, traditions, literary classics, relics, and artworks. So Chinese culture offers an inexhaustible resource for our show.
Not just the Chinese stories are source material, but also many of the ancient values. For example, classic legends that we’ve performed on stage, like The Loyalty of Yue Fei or Mulan, have a deeper message behind them. In The Loyalty of Yue Fei, it’s faithfulness and righteousness; in Mulan benevolence and filial piety.
Our mission is to revive the beauty of 5,000 years of Chinese civilization. So, we have the highest requirement for our dances. Every single dance is designed to display the ideal of pure beauty and pure compassion.
Q: How do you work to achieve this ideal of “pure beauty and pure compassion” on stage?
CL: Pure beauty and pure compassion have to come from the heart. I believe beauty is a reflection of your mind. In classical Chinese dance, we say that every movement originates from your internal world and intrinsic thoughts. These thoughts are directly related to your morals, value system, and general state of mind. Pure beauty and pure compassion can only be achieved through a beautiful spirit and noble character.
Q: What is your everyday life in Shen Yun like?
CL: We have dance training and rehearsals every day. And we try to achieve perfection in every field—whether it’s training in classical Chinese dance, dance techniques, tumbling techniques, or ethnic dances.
When we’re not training or rehearsing, I like to read about Chinese history. There’s so much there that you can never get through it all. Reading helps extend my understanding of traditional Chinese culture.
I love to read Chinese poems, especially poems by Li Bai—he was known as “The Immortal Poet.” Poems even inspire my dancing. In a dance called Water Sleeves, I used a verse from a Wang Bo poem, written during the Tang Dynasty, to find the right feeling:
“The autumn river shares a scenic hue with the vast sky, The evening glow forms a parallel with a bird to fly.”
Q: In both 2009 and 2010, you won gold prizes in NTD’s International Classical Chinese Dance Competition. There was no competition last year, but there’s one this summer and we heard you’ll be competing. Is this something you look forward to?
CL: Dance competitions are always challenging. Participating requires a lot of preparation. First you have to choose a theme, find interesting choreography, good music, and a matching costume. Then you have to practice, practice, practice. It’s a process of moving forward and making progress all the way until your final product is ready—your final dance at the competition.
The competition can be very stressful, but it pushes me forward in dancing. I can learn a lot, whether through my intensive practice or from watching my competitors.
Q: In these competitions, you’ve excelled in the difficult classical Chinese dance techniques. How do you practice these?
CL: Classical Chinese dance techniques are very complex. There are many turns, flips, jumping, and tumbling techniques. Many of the acrobatic flips we see in gymnastics actually originate from classical Chinese dance. These techniques require tremendous precision and coordination.
But good techniques can’t just be achieved through mechanical practice. You have to think about the angles, directions, and trajectory to get the best results. Sometimes, I even use mathematical and physical axioms to improve my techniques. For example, when practicing my jumping, I discovered that for any kind of leap, the best liftoff jumping angle for achieving the maximal horizontal distance is indeed an angle of 45 degrees. So when I jump up, I try to go up at precisely this angle.
Of course, dancing demands a lot more than good techniques. On top of being an athlete, there’s the art. Dancing requires form (or shen fa), expression, bearing and feeling—especially classical Chinese dance, which is so expressive. These elements are even harder to perfect than techniques. There’s no exact method or solution for artistic expression and you can’t measure it in angles. Every dancer has her own individual expression, and every dancer has to polish it by herself.
Q: What are your future aspirations?
CL: I hope we can perform in China one day. China is “the Celestial Empire,” the Middle Kingdom, and my original motherland. I would love to see Shen Yun go back to the place of its cultural origin.