'Peacock princess'

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Yang Liping became known as the "peacock princess" after her 1986 award-winning dance piece, Spirit of the Peacock, a work inspired by the lithe and graceful hand movements of the bird-related dance of the ethnic Bai people in Yunnan province.

A Yunnan native and dancer releases her short film in the Year of the Tiger.

In 2021, Yang planned to celebrate her career spanning 50 years since she joined Xishuangbanna Song and Dance Ensemble in 1971 as a dancer when she was 13 years old. However, she had to postpone her plans due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On April 27, two days before International Dance Day, Yang appeared in Beijing to attend a public event marking her career. Wearing a long pink dress with a hand-embroidered tiger in the front, Yang was overcome by emotion.

"So many things happened in the past 50 years and I don't know where to begin," Yang, 63, said when asked to review her career. "I will start with a song my grandmother sang to me every day when I was a little girl. It's the sound of my hometown, which lingers in my head wherever I go."

Born in a Bai family in Dali, Yunnan, she never received formal dance training but displayed a talent for dancing since she was a child.

"I danced on the farmland as a child. My grandmother told me that dancing was a way to say thanks to the sun since it brings us warmth," recalls Yang.

In nature, she learned to dance by observing peacocks spread their feathers and ants march for food. She also danced to the sounds of birds chirping, leaves rustling and water running.

She left her hometown and performed at grand theaters and festivals in China and overseas, as well as winning a number of awards. In 2003, she decided to return to villages in Yunnan to study local dances and folk songs, which she calls "going back to her roots".

As an artistic director, a choreographer and leading dancer, Yang gathered folk artists from Yunnan, such as singers, dancers and instrumentalists, to perform in the theatrical production, Dynamic Yunnan, which has been staged more than 7,000 times. Later, she continued to choreograph more than 10 stage productions, including Tibetan Myth, Under Siege and The Rite of Spring.

"Dynamic Yunnan is a significant work for me. In 2003, we had to disband the team as many shows were canceled due to the SARS outbreak. Now, with a heavy heart, we share news of disbanding the team again, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has affected the performing arts scene.

"I am not afraid of dealing with difficulties. However, it's heartbreaking to see folk artists in the team leave," Yang says.

Yang released her new work, a 12-minute dance film, The Tiger's Roar. Featuring young dancers, including Lyu Chengliang, Chen Tian and Zhu Fengwei, the film is inspired by the tiger, symbolizing strength and courage. Award-winning composer Tan Dun and singer Gong Linna are part of the project.

Yang is not foreign to films. In 1995, she played a role in the film, Warrior Lanling, directed by Hu Xuehua. In 1998, she wrote, directed and performed in the film, Sunbird, which won the grand jury's award at the Montreal International Film Festival.

"As the film is released online, it will reach more people, who will feel the power of dance. I hope this power will help them go through the difficult days," says Yang. "For me, it's an experiment. I want to know how far this film can go and how people react to itļ¼¨watching dance movements on their screens instead of enjoying dance shows in-person."

The Tiger's Roar is the second project Yang has done based on animals of the Chinese zodiac. In 2021, she choreographed a dance piece, Spring Ox Picture. The ox symbolizes hard work, a traditional virtue. She says she will choreograph a series of dance works, based on other animals of the Chinese zodiac in the future.

"I've known her since she was a young dancer. Now she is a legend," says Feng Shuangbai, president of the Chinese Dancers Association.

In the 1980s, Feng watched Yang's performances in Yunnan, where she trained every night after the performances.

"I saw many dancers training at dancing studios. But Yang, unlike those dancers, could train herself anywhere she wanted," says Feng. "She could extend her arms like the wings of a bird and move her body as naturally as a flowing river. She was born to dance."

He notes that it's a new reality for dancers and choreographers as the entertainment business has been hit by the pandemic. For example, Tao Dance Theater, a 14-year-old contemporary dance company, which has toured more than 40 countries and was co-founded by dancer-choreographer Tao Ye and his dancer wife, Duan Ni, announced that it plans to disband in May. The company was scheduled to stage some 11 dance works from April 29 to May 4 at the NCPA Taihu Stage Art Center in Beijing's Tongzhou district, which have been canceled due to the outbreak.

"The experience has been surreal and stressful. For the dance community, connecting online is hard, which is a lot more different from interacting face to face," says Feng. "But it's better than doing nothing. I saw many dancers and choreographers continually adapting to the new circumstances and thinking outside the box to come up with ways to survive."

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