Yang Liping speaks out

by Natsume Date

Special To The Japan Times

“My dance is not something I learned from someone; my mentor is nature and I learn from watching nature,” is how the Chinese star Yang Liping explained the roots of her art in a recent interview for The Japan Times.

Now aged 55, Yang is a member of the Bai ethnic minority in China’s southwestern province of Yunnan, where she says her body reacted to the nature that met her eyes, and before she knew it she was dancing.

After joining a provincial song and dance ensemble in her early teens, by 1979 Yang had been promoted to a side role in “Peacock Princess,” a production by the large-scale ethnic Yunnan Xishuangbanna Song and Dance Troupe that celebrated the avian symbol of the Dai people, just as the dragon and phoenix are symbols of the Han Chinese.

Yet even in that small role Yang far outshone the lead dancer, and was soon promoted to the Beijing-based China Central Ethnic Song and Dance Ensemble. There, however, Yang’s individuality made it hard for her to dance in strict formations, so before long she left to embark on a career producing solo works. That decision paid off in 1986, when her 20-minute piece, “Spirit of the Peacock,” was hugely successful and she became known nationwide.

Commenting on this, she said, “I’ve been dancing the traditional ‘Peacock Dance’ since I was 16, but my ‘Spirit of the Peacock,’ was much more complicated. Also, despite many Asian countries having peacock dances, in India for example the performers hold sticks and spread out huge cloth sleeves to represent wings — but I don’t need sticks as I think that using just my body is much more beautiful for bringing life to the peacock.”

As for the mesmerizing effects she creates, Yang modestly said, “Just as the swan suits Western people, I think the peacock suits Easterners” — though in truth it is her own unique artistry at work here right from the tips of her long fingernails and through her long slim neck to the movements of her slender torso.

Indeed, as she explained, “For me, dancing isn’t a job, it’s the same as living — so I’m not distracted by idle thoughts and I think this purity comes across to the audience.”

Even so, in recent years Yang has said that she’s begun to consider retiring from the stage and devoting herself to choreography and production. And in 2012, when “The Peacock” opened in China, she declared it to be the culmination of her 40 years as a dancer.

In this work that now awaits audiences in Japan, Yang uses the four seasons’ sequence from spring to winter to symbolize life’s journey. As she put it, “You are born, you grow up, you deteriorate and then die. This is something that everything with life shares, and it is a fate we can’t escape. I too have reached this age, and I’ve come to be deeply impressed by the history and many problems that humanity has been saddled with. In my own life, too, I’ve already experienced birth, growth and decay — so I decided I’d tackle death next.”

In “The Peacock,” Yang rises to that ultimate challenge by depicting a peacock chick that grows up and comes to know love, only for a crow — symbolic of lust and jealousy — to pull her and her beau apart so that the male must sacrifice his life to save the female. Nonetheless, in due course she becomes old, alone and sorrowful until a god finally appears to her, and her soul is set free as the cycle of life continues.

“The god that appears here,” she explained, “is a sort of spirit entity without a form, and its role is to provide an objective point of view. Everyone who appears in this show is involved in the source of life, and it’s not just a romance about a prince and a princess.”

What awaits audiences in Tokyo and Osaka is actually a two-hour tour de force on a magnificent scale as befits a danseuse of and for Mother Nature. And of course that mentor is the only one who knows whether this will be Yang Liping’s last dance in public …

“The Peacock” runs May 23-June 1 at Orchard Hall in Shibuya, Tokyo. For details, call 03-3477-9999 or visit www.bunkamura.co.jp. It then plays June 7 and 8 at Umeda Arts Theatre in Osaka. For details, call 06-6538-9977. This story was written in Japanese for The Japan Times and translated by Claire Tanaka.