Feature Interview: Dancer Xiya Li
With Shen Yun Touring Company in its second month of traveling across North America, we caught a few peaceful moments to sit down with dancer Xiya Li in the beautiful lobby of North Carolina’s Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. We asked her about her cosmopolitan background, life on tour, dance training, and bringing out deep emotions in the numbers she stars in, like “No Regret” and “Lady Mu Guiying Commands the Troops.”
Q: Xiya, your family is from China, you grew up in Berlin, and now you’re based in New York?
XL: Yes. My parents are from Xinjiang, in northwest China, and they moved to Germany for university. So I was born and raised in Germany, but my parents always wanted my sister and me to learn as much as possible about our heritage. We spoke Mandarin at home, and when I turned four, I was sent to a Chinese language school. Around the house, we were surrounded by Chinese books and movies, and so I grew up with legends like Journey to the West and The Eight Taoist Immortals.
My parents devoted a lot of attention to our education. They raised us with traditional Chinese values, hoping that we would grow up to be as graceful and virtuous as ancient Chinese women.
When I was six, my mother sent me to a ballet school. When I was 10, I started learning classical Chinese dance from an eminent dance teacher until I joined Shen Yun Performing Arts in 2006.
Q: How many languages do you speak now?
XL: Three—Chinese, English, and German. Chinese is my favorite language. But I like Asian styles in general, especially Korean. I love watching Korean dramas set in the old imperial palaces; I like listening to how Korean sounds, though I can hardly understand anything.
Q: Now, you switched from ballet to Chinese dance. How is classical Chinese dance different?
XL: Classical Chinese dance is really a completely independent dance form, with its own unique system of movements, postures, training, highly difficult techniques, and a history of thousands of years. It’s an extremely rich and expressive art form.
The distinctly Chinese rhythms and movements and poses, and a range of jumping and tumbling techniques, compose the external expressions of the body in classical Chinese dance. It takes hard work to perfect the coordination of all these elements. Every smile, every look—what we call “the spirit of the eyes” in Chinese, every subtle inclination of the head, and every arm position are subject to incessant refinement.
And then, just as importantly, there’s the internal realm. The inner feelings play a critical role. That's because the essence of classical Chinese dance lies in what we call “bearing,” or internal rhythms, and the inner spirit. This demands a deep understanding of Chinese culture and the meaning, or essence of what you want to express.
Q: You’ve received much praise for your expressivity on stage. How do you manage to find inspiration for the roles you play?
XL: Last year, in the dance “No Regrets,” I played a mother whose son is persecuted and killed because of his faith in Falun Gong. Even though I’m very familiar with these kinds of stories and what is happening in China today, it was a challenging piece to act—you have to really put yourself out there emotionally.
I worked closely with Yungchia Chen, who choreographed the piece, to get the acting just right. I spent so many hours trying to find the feeling of an elderly mother in her utmost pain.
But it was hard. The dancer who played my son was Golden Li, who’s actually a couple years older. I would look at him and think: “He’s my son? He’s two years older than me! Plus, I'm not a mother... let alone a mother who’s lost a son. How do I play this?”
At first, the pained facial expressions I had to depict… I didn’t dare make those kinds of faces. Especially as a woman, it was hard to break through it. Then I thought: “Who cares?! Just give your best to the audience.”
During that rehearsal period, I would walk down to a lake on our campus, listening to the dance’s music to slowly enter the role. Then, one day I was looking at paintings and happened to come across one of a mother holding her son that was killed. And I saw her expression. I got a photo of that painting and carried it with me as I walked around the lake listening to the dance’s composition.
During those walks, to help me understand what she was feeling, I immersed myself in thoughts about today’s cruel persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in China, and how their only pursuit is following the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. Feeling overwhelming pain, without noticing, I got very sad. I became so absorbed into the role that my friends started to worry about me. They asked if something was wrong. But I was just too engrossed in my role. Indeed, after each rehearsal I would be really exhausted from the emotional outburst of the character.
Q: Have you always been able to act?
XL: I don’t think of myself as being that great at acting, really. When I was little I was quite mischievous and playful. When I was eight, a friend of my parents told me: “When you grow up, you’ll definitely be a performer.” When I dance, it’s very easy for me to have a smiling expression, it just comes naturally. But the more complex roles require more thought.
Q: In this season’s dance “Lady Mu Guiying Commands the Troops,” you play the matriarch of the Yang clan. Tell us about the emotions you depict in this story.
XL: Yeah, I play She Taijun, who was a very strong women from a very strong family. The Yang family lived over a thousand years ago, during the Song Dynasty. The dynasty went into decay—the palace was corrupt and the country was constantly invaded, and this family kept the dynasty alive. But as war took a heavy toll on the family, there were soon no men left to fight. It’s at this point that I appear on stage as head of the clan.
When I first come out, I look at my granddaughter-in-law, Mu Guiying, and think: “What’s going on with her?” Then, I see that she’s holding something—her husband’s (that is, my grandson’s) bloodied cloth and I’m horrified. I realize: “Oh no! He’s been killed at war. The last male in the family—gone.” Of course I’m deeply grieved, and I recall what he was like as a young child when I cradled him in my arms. But then quickly the emotion turns to gathering up courage. I think about the country’s people—they need someone to stand up and defend them, so I need to be strong and fortify Lady Mu Guiying to lead the troops into battle.
Q: You seem to often have many different character changes in a single show. What are some of the challenges this creates?
XL: Once I had three dances in a row, three completely different types of dances. For each, I had to change into a new costume and had only about a minute to do so, which requires a lot of help from the other girls. We rush into the quick-change room, find our spots, and help each other into the next costume. There’s no margin for error—the timing of the transition between pieces is coordinated down to a matter of seconds.
Also, since every dance is based on a different theme, I have to quickly switch my feelings before each piece. You're not only changing costumes and hairpieces, but undergoing dramatic emotional changes, all in just a few moments.
Q: What’s the most difficult piece you have this year?
XL: I would say the handkerchief dance, “Snowflakes Welcoming Spring.” We started doing handkerchief dances a few years ago, and it required constant training. We would practice spinning them in both hands hundreds of times. We’ve done several handkerchief dances since then, so we’re talking about a lot of spinning. The longest I spun them continuously was 1,400 times… that was maybe 40 minutes in a row of spinning them vertically with both hands. Spinning it horizontally isn’t that hard; it’s the vertical that’s hard.
Q: How do you learn to throw it?
XL: Also practice. Some of us would practice for an hour throwing it to someone. Your index finger has to point directly at the person you’re throwing it to.
Two of our other group female dances this year, the Qiang ethnic dance and the Taiwanese dance “In the Mountains,” are also very tiring, demanding dances requiring non-stop intense movement.
Q: So what do you do to relax, when you're not on stage or rehearsing?
XL: When I’m not dancing I love walking, just being outside. Sometimes I’ll step outside to get some fresh air and just stand around for half an hour, thinking of nothing. I also enjoy listening to piano music. I like Yanni’s “Nightingale.” I used his music for my fan dance during last year’s dance competition. I also love listening to traditional Chinese music, like erhu pieces.
Q: You and your fellow dancers are constantly on the go during Shen Yun’s touring season, which lasts almost six months every year. Do you have time to get out and see the places where you perform?
XL: Definitely. I especially enjoyed visiting the ancient wooden architecture in Korea and Japan, and the plum and cherry blossoms in spring. We went to the Kyoto Buddhist temple that was built in Tang Dynasty style. I just loved entering that scene. There’s nothing modern or contemporary there.
In Korea, we visited the location where they film Korean TV drama series. That’s where they taped the epic Jewel in the Palace, and when I visited there it was like: “Oh, that’s where this scene was filmed and, I remember this happened here…” And we saw them filming a new series there, people dressed in traditional Korean garb walking down the streets of an ancient village.
Q: It sounds like you’re genuinely fulfilled by your work and travel with Shen Yun.
XL: Yes, this form of dance can be difficult, but it's also very rewarding to be able to share what we've learned with our audiences. I think what we all want to do through dance is to share with our audience our conviction in art and beauty, things that everyone can understand and relate to. I think everyone hopes for more compassion in today’s world. It’s my wish to help awaken a sense of hope in a person’s heart that this is possible.
February 15, 2012