Saturday, September 20, 2008

FEATURE: Disabled Chinese artists aspire to global fame

An electrical accident left HuangYangguang armless, but dancing changed his life.

The 31-year-old was born in a mountain village in south China'sGuangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and lost his arms at five. As he grew up, he learned to write, paint, ride a bicycle and plant fruit trees with his legs, believing he could live as normal as others did.

Now his life is more than normal. As a lead dancer in the China Disabled People's Performing Art Troupe, he has a tight schedule and global aspiration.

"My dream used to be feeding my parents, two younger brother and sister on my own," said Huang, sitting relaxed in a chair backstage at the Beijing Poly Theatre following a show. "Now my dream is to bring joy to as many people as possible around the world."

On Thursday, Huang flew from Beijing to Japan. His companions were singers who couldn't see, actors who couldn't hear and a wheelchair soprano.

Having shone during the Paralympic opening and closing ceremonies, the troupe aspired to even bigger success on world stage, both commercially and artistically.

At the National Stadium, also known as the Bird's Nest, on Sept. 6, the spotlight was on the 100-strong deaf dancers who performed ballet with an amputee girl from the May 12 earthquake. At the Paralympic closing ceremony on Wednesday night, a deaf-mutegirl "talked" the flame to extinguish in sign language.

Other leading lights from the troupe included a pianist, a singer and a flutist, all who had lost their sight but blew away the audience with their performances.

In Japan, 28 shows await them in Tokyo, Osaka and 16 other cities. They are followed by a two-week U.S. tour to Los Angeles and San Francisco, among other cities, beginning Oct. 2. Planned destinations after Oct. 22 included Portugal, Morocco, Algeria and the United Arab Emirates.

For those places the troupe won't have enough time to visit, a documentary named after their ongoing show, "My Dream," was slated for a global premier in April. The movie was invested by the troupe itself and was in the running for next year's Academy Awards for best documentary feature.

"My dream is to bring our special art to every corner of the world," Tai Lihua, head of the 153-member troupe, told Xinhua in sign language. "That dream will never end."


In "My Dream," Huang's dance presents a picture of rural life in his hometown with exuberance and joy. He skillfully carried two buckets with a pole on his shoulders, holds a ladle between the toes of one foot, while standing on the other. He also spun a straw hat on his head to celebrate harvest. Nothing sad.

The same vigor was conveyed by other programs of the show, which was updated for the fifth time for the Beijing Olympics and Paralympic occasions and put on in Beijing during the respective Games.

In the two-hour show, two hearing-impaired actors performed Peking Opera while their blind companions played music and voiced the dialogue. A group of blind dancers paid tribute to spring. A band without music books plays, despite its members being unable to see.

"Communication and cooperation between our members is natural, "Tai said. "Of course it's more difficult for us than for others, but everyone here has been used to his or her environment. That's the way we live, so we try harder."

The 32-year-old Tai lost her hearing from excessive medicine injections during a bout of fever at age two. She had to count from one to eight in her head more than 1,000 times to complete a dance without messing the rhythms.

The dancer overcame her disability, making a hit out of her performances at such top-class venues as New York's Carnegie Hall and Milan's La Scala Theater.

She first "heard" music at the age of seven, when she had a rhythmic class at a primary school for deaf-mutes.

"When I felt the drum beats passed on to my feet through the wood floor, I was startled. It was a happiness I had never experienced." Since then, she had never looked back on her dancing journey.

Like Tai, all members of the troupe had to fully realize their potential and turn to some special means to fulfill artistic achievement.

In a dance celebrating spring, blind boys and girls wearing sunglasses kept themselves in a neat line helped by a rope tied totheir waists. Arm in arm, they put together green plastic patches to form a patch of grassland and smiled while sniffing the grass.

"It was very difficult as sight-impaired people had no sense ofimages and usually made vocal performances," said an ex-official with the China Disabled Persons' Federation , which was in charge of the troupe.

"The choreographer came up with the idea as we wanted to give our audience something special, something that nobody would think was possible," she said.

To give the blind dancers a basic idea of body movement, the teacher made a pose first and then let them feel the position of her arms and legs.

"Many blind kids didn't even know what a smile is," said the official, who had been working closely with the troupe since its establishment and spoke on condition of anonymity. Like Tai, the troupe authorities always called the members "kids" in affection.

Some could only make awkward expressions or simply laugh when told to smile, she said. The teacher had to use hands to fix a smile on their faces and asked them to remember the muscle movement.

Their work paid off. The elegant, bright smiles were infectiousand always enlivened audiences.


Huang was recruited by the troupe in 2001 when he took part in a national arts contest for the disabled and won a prize. Before that, his inspiring story had drawn media attention and aroused the interest of a local official in charge of cultural affairs. Helater choreographed a dance for him to showcase the armless man's special talent.

Like Huang, most of the troupe's members were picked from special schools or national art competitions, or recommended by local disabled people's federations, Tai said.

They were selected according to their artistic talent or enthusiasm despite few having received professional training before, she said.

"After they entered the troupe, we found good college tutors and famed artists to teach them. We must ensure a sound, professional foundation for our art."


At first, the troupe was just a provisional organization after its 1987 founding when more than 30 disabled teenagers were allowed to take part in the First China Art Festival in Beijing. Their performance moved a large audience and the troupe was formed.

"Authorities of the CDPF fought for that opportunity at the festival," the troupe official recalled. "They thought those children needed a stage. Many of them loved singing and dancing and could do it well despite disabilities."

However, in the first 14 years, the troupe only existed when big activities were held; members were temporarily called up from schools and other places to enhance several programs.

"The troupe was totally at an amateur level at the time, kind of self-entertaining," the official said.

A turning point emerged in 2001 when the troupe was invited by the CASI Foundation for Children to perform in six U.S. states. Officials deemed it necessary to put on a professional show and started to formalize its organization, training and choreographing the members collectively.

"It was a huge success and gave us enormous confidence," said the official. "We realized we were not only the same as other people, but we could also become artists."

The troupe decided to reject government funding and sell tickets for a living in 2002, eager to prove their artistic value and to get more money for innovation and improvement.

They persevered through tough times when nobody would watch their shows, even when tickets were offered free.

"Some companies said they would rather give us money than take our tickets, as they thought performances by disabled persons would just make people sad," the official sad.

Their reputation, however, was gradually built as the troupe's name was passed by word of mouth. "We expanded the market step by step. We put in a lot of efforts in advertisements too."

In 2004, the troupe put on a memorable dance performance in the eight-minute Beijing segment of the Athens Paralympic closing ceremony. It featured 21 deaf artists in ornate golden costumes moving their arms in breathtaking synchronicity in tribute to an eastern Bodhisattva of compassion, guided by sign-language teachers.

It was a pivotal moment for the troupe. The show overwhelmed millions at home and abroad and gave a boost to national pride as the Greek media commented the program rescued the whole ceremony.

Video clips of their performance were posted on YouTube. "Impressive, I never knew disabled people and performing arts work together," was one comment in English on the website. "Who would have guessed the best dance performance I've ever seen would be done by deaf dancers," said another.

With success, the troupe's pockets swelled to the point where it had enough money to set up a 1 million U.S. dollar charity fund last year.

"I feel more valued here and I earn much more than I did back home," Huang said.

The official said there used to be dissent over whether it was necessary for the group to achieve a professional standard, as some argued the fact that the disabled could perform would be enough to attract attention, the official said.

"The authorities finally reached this conclusion: the sympathy for disabilities is temporary, but the power of art is eternal."


No comments: