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Dancing to her own drummer

By : Shanghai Daily|Updated: 2011-11-07

Ethnic dance queen Yang Liping has been called the "Sorceress of Dance," the "Goddess of Dance" and the "Peacock Princess," compared over the years with the majestic and haughty peacock that she famously portrays.

Yang's passion for ethnic dance from Yunnan Province where she grew up, her obvious talent, her extraordinary shape (standing 165 centimeters tall, weighing just 45 kilograms) and her determination to succeed combined to make her China's best-known ethnic dancer.

She is also known for being forceful and individualistic, persisting at a time of conformity when individualism was criticized. She is single-minded and stubborn, going her own way, rejecting the rules and formal dance training. She largely studied and trained on her own. She used to seize the moment, step forward and dominate a group scene as other dancers moved to the background.

Not surprisingly she didn't have many friends or supporters in her early years. It is said that her interpretation of the proud and aloof peacock is drawn from her own experience of self-imposed isolation.

Today Yang has received numerous dance awards and runs her own "ecological" dance company, the Dynamic Yunnan Troupe, which tours internationally and is dedicated to preserving and perpetuating ethnic music and dance.

It's comprised of untrained Yunnan villagers who sing and dance with spontaneity and haven't forgotten the ancient rhythms and how to play, for example, the Divine Drums of the Luchun tribe. Like Yang they have not been trained, but are told to observe nature, exaggerate their movements and deliver a high-octane performance that leaves them drenched with sweat.

"Folk dance has degenerated in ethnic villages, which are increasingly enclosed by cities. Villagers' living patterns have changed but intangible dance culture needs to be preserved and passed on. I'm doing my best to achieve this in my lifetime."

"I employ folk artists to teach and turn local people into dancers on stage - I build a system that facilitates development of dance, so at least we can inherit some culture. Many people preach about preserving culture, but only a few puts theory into practice - I did it."

Yang is designing, choreographing and staring in the show "Peacock," but license will be held by the Hangzhou Golden Coast Theater Company and a Yunnan theater. It is expected to premiere in 2012. Yang was recently in Hangzhou to sign the contract and spoke with Shanghai Daily, also answering questions in a telephone interview.

When she met Shanghai Daily, she was dressed dramatically in a richly embroidered ethnic vest, a long colorful skirt, long earrings that reached her chest, a trendy dark leather hat and large-framed, bright-red eyeglasses.

Though she is in her 50s, she remains supple - many would say gaunt - and her hair falls to her waist.

Because of her very low body mass index and lack of body fat she has not been able to have children. She was divorced once and now is married to a Taiwanese restaurant owner. "My understanding of family is that a little ant can be my son, while dance can be my loveliest child," she said in the interview.

"All in all, to achieve something, you have to learn to discipline yourself."

There's a saying in Yunnan: "Every leaf can dance, every stone can sing. Even the sounds of the butterfly moving its wings are beats, and the sounds of millet growing are melodies."

This is the animist sense that informs her works.

Yang is known for spectaculars that she choreographed and directed, including "Dynamic Yunnan," "Echoes of Shangri-la" (also called "Sound of Yunnan"), and "Tibetan Myth" all drawing on the natural environment and folk cultures of southwestern China. Her signature piece is "Soul of the Peacock," based on ancient tribal peacock dances.