Dance queen says no to the crown
Updated: 2012-03-09 07:34
By Chen Yingqun (China Daily)
Tai Lihua is very strict in rehearsals and never lowers the demands on performers. Zhang Wei / China Daily
Tai lihua eschewed advertising fame, now her mission is to help others
They are a group of people few of us listen to, because we think they have nothing to say. But when you sit down and really listen to people like Tai Lihua, you know there is much to hear and much to learn. Wearing a black pullover, a blue scarf and with a little smile, Tai sits in her spartan office of the China Disabled People's Performing Art Troupe in Beijing, using her delicate fingers to get across her message using sign language.
Tai is in Beijing as a member attending the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the country's top political advisory body, where she will put forward proposals aimed at improving life for the disabled.
She has just had another fruitful year with the art troupe, performing 143 shows in 26 countries in Europe, the United States, Asia and Africa.
"We were given a great reception, especially in Europe," she says.
As president and art director of the troupe, she is now as adept at the complex and difficult tasks of management and politics as at using her physical skills on stage to delight and entertain. Her chief task with the troupe these days is to promote its special brand of art.
"We are thankful for the help we receive, but we want the audience to watch us out of love for our art rather than out of sympathy," she says.
Tai Lihua became a household name in China seven years ago after she played the leading role in The Thousand-handed Goddess of Mercy, a dance performed by 21 dancers with hearing and speaking disabilities, on the CCTV Spring Festival Gala Show that is aired annually on Chinese New Year's Eve and which has one of the biggest audiences of any show on Chinese TV.
Following that appearance, she was highly sought after by companies eager to cash in on her instant fame by getting her to endorse their products. To all of them she essentially raised one arm, displayed the palm of her hand and shook it from side to side - Chinese sign language for "no".
"I'm happy more people are noticing and appreciating our art," she says.
"Being in advertising is not for me. What we dancers need if we want to continue being creative, which is the most important thing for us, is serenity of space and calmness of mind."
Tai lost her hearing when she was two, after receiving an overdose of streptomycin, given to treat a high fever. But out of that ordeal was born her passion for dancing.
"When you face difficulties it is wrong to give up," she says. "And once you have conquered your difficulties it is pointless dwelling on how hard it all was."
She now leads a group of about 110 performers who have varying degrees of difficulty in hearing, seeing and speaking, and whose average age is about 20. They are divided into three groups, two of which tour in China and overseas and the other of which consists of trainees.
Li Ying has worked as an instructor for the troupe for five years and says that in the dancers she sees Tai's spirit. "Whether they are performers or trainees, they practice and work hard every day."
One of the dancers' main training tools is mirrors, and it is in front of them that a lot of practice and hard work takes place, night and day, Li says.
Another of the other main tools is, of course, feet. Without those the show simply cannot go on, which means that if a dancer injures herself or himself a dance can instantly turn into drama. In one case recently, Li says, one of the dancers, Liao Jin, sustained an injury, but refused to go to hospital until the performance had finished.
Tai, 36, joined the troupe in 1991 and has grown with it. A key part of her mission to take the troupe's art to the world is passing on her artistic knowledge to young people so that they can realize their dreams, artistic and otherwise. Everyday she is in the rehearsal room, giving instructions on movement.
"She is easygoing and friendly, like the girl living next door," Li says. "But when it comes to rehearsals she is very strict and never lowers the demands on dancers."
For the past few years, Tai and the group have labored long and hard to reach a goal that is fiendishly elusive and perhaps even unattainable: perfection. But that has not stopped them trying, and the fruit of that labor has included My Dream, a series of works with vocals and instruments, dances and drama. The troupe has also featured in a documentary art film, My Dream, and books have been published about members' lives.
The themes of the troupe's works are beauty and gratitude.
"We believe that whatever the situation, we should lead our lives with a happy and thankful mind," Tai says.
She encourages performers to express their thoughts and to innovate with their own dance routines. One technique the troupe uses is to turn tragedy into comedy or at least something with a softer edge. In the condensed dance drama Butterfly Lovers, the two young characters who are in love but unable to marry finally reunite in heaven as two gorgeous butterflies, thus giving an uplifting ending to a piece that traditionally ends with the pair going their separate ways.
Tai also creates special art forms that take account of each performer's real situation, allowing people with different disabilities to perform in the same program.
For example, in the Scent of a Woman, those who cannot see dance the tango guided by those who cannot hear. Returning the favor, those who cannot see give those who cannot hear help in following the rhythm.
"The blind and the deaf help each other in their lives and when their mutual understanding is being reflected on the stage, it all becomes a beautiful, special art form," Tai says.
But Tai's aspirations and efforts for her performers are not limited to the stage.
While honing performing skills is important to her, so is moral integrity.
"Performers must have virtue and be well-educated, then their works will be more impressive and possess an inner value."
To ensure that the performers develop in an all-round way, they are required to do classroom study every morning, taking subjects such as Chinese and mathematics, and the troupe has set up a scholarship to encourage them.
Tai and the troupe also offer a helping hand to others, and over the past three years have donated 8.51 million yuan ($1.35 million, 1.02 million euros) for good works in China and $810,000 overseas.
"We're proud to be useful to others and society, which makes our lives more meaningful," Tai says.
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