Tai Lihua, the disabled lead dancer of "The Thousand-handed Goddess of Mercy", impressed us by her refined performance but more by her spirit.
With graceful dance and sumptuous costumes, the dance of "The Thousand-handed Goddess of Mercy" was absolutely an eye-catcher. But can you imagine that the 21 dancers are deaf and mute?
It was the first time ever that a dance performance by handicapped people was put on show at the Spring Festival Gala, and it was a big hit. Never has a performance ever before won so much applause from the audience. Not only was the dance awarded as the best dance of the gala, but also was considered the most successful and touching.
If the dance was a climax of the gala, the lead dancer Tai Lihua was the soul. People thus affectionately call her "Kwan-yin sister."
"Tai is the best deaf dancer I have ever seen," said Zhang Jigang, director of the dance. "She just has the sense."
When Tai first performed the dance years back, she didn't grasp it well and either grinned or sulked. But the countenance she has acquired now is long sought. It's an expression of serenity as Goddess of Mercy should be kind and look composed.
It was only a month before the show when they first received the invitation to perform. The dancers, disregarding the bitterly cold winter, rehearsed again and again from dawn till dust. Since they can't hear, they had to follow the instructors, who would signal the rhythm of the music from the four corners of the room.
At the gala, they stood as a whole on a lotus platform and in front of a magnificent arched gate "narrating" their beautiful story with elegant gestures, vivid eyes, and dignified postures. It was like a scene from Heaven. The whole nation was moved by such graceful body language and all words seemed ashy during their performance.
After an overdose of streptomycin to treat a high fever at the age of two, Tai began to lose her hearing. She didn't realize this until she tried to join a group of friends in a sound-distinguishing game. She was five by then and other kids were going to normal schools. Little Tai, thrust in deep depression and solitude, had to go to a primary school for the disabled.
Life had to carry on but a young heart sobbed on in a soundless world… All until one day when a teacher at the special school brought a drum to class and started to beat it, Tai was thrilled by the rhythmic vibration that passed over her body from under her feet. She was overwhelmed and simply bent over to the wooden floor: It was the most beautiful sound in the world to her.
To again experience such a feeling, Tai would press her little face to a loudspeaker and imagine the dance on TV. It was her language and the only one, to express her understanding of the world. From then on, Tai became obsessed with dancing.
At the age of 15, Tai was selected for professional training. But such a beginner as she was, Tai's movements were so uncoordinated and even a little bit clumsy that the teachers were not positive about her future development.
However, Tai Lihua never gave up. Her determination would be physically manifest. During Tai's first summer of dance training, her mother took notice of her daughter's habit of always wearing slacks, never skirts. While Tai napped one day, her mother rolled up a leg of her daughter's trousers. She was shocked to see the severity of the bruising and became distressed to the point of tears.
Dancing, pitifully an art always related to music, captivates Tai. For her, the only way out is to memorize, repeat, and memorize again. In her mind, dancing is a piece of visible and colorful music. It's a unique language to express her inner world. Progress rekindled her hope.
The Spirit of the Peacock originally by Yang Liping is Tai Lihua's favorite dance. The first time she watched it, she fell in love with it. Lots of dancers tried to emulate Yang's performance and all failed. But after watching Tai's performance, Yang kept saying: "If faced with the same disability, I wouldn't dance it as well as you do."
Tai's outstanding performance brought her to the world stage. She is the only Chinese dancer to have performed both at Carnegie Hall in New York and La Scala in Milan. And a poster of The Spirit of the Peacock by her at Carnegie Hall is the only one from China.
Now when the curtain rises, the lights come up and the music fades in, there is Tai in the elegant flowing dress signature to the piece. She moves with her impressionistic interpretation of that precise-stepping and extraordinary land bird. As if in a silent wood, on a green lawn, or by a gurgling brook, with expression of face and body she captivates with physical interpretation and spirit.
A Graceful Heart
In 1994, Tai was admitted to the Hubei Fine Arts Institute as a student majoring in decoration and design. Her most loving piece is a canvas painting of ears and eyes. It's about a man standing in an abyss of darkness. She added ears and eyes and also the sun to it because disabled people always aspire for the colorful world. Sunshine brings life and hope.
Tai believes that life is never plain sailing. You can't choose goods and bads but you CAN pick a perspective and brave the adversity.
Tai is always frank and optimistic. If she could hear, she wouldn't get so much care from people around her perhaps, let alone achieve anything. It's the affection that has supported her all along, and so rather than regret, she has great satisfaction.
Living twenty years in a silent world, Tai Lihua doesn't bear a grudge. She retains a smile to the world and has made a miracle out of her disability. Every one knows her as an outgoing and optimistic character. It's such an attitude that prompts her to dance to her "music," narrating her beautiful story.
As Tai understands, the Thousand-handed Goddess of Mercy is kind-hearted and always willing to give a hand to people in difficulty. As the society shows concern and care, the disabled are reaching out with the deepest gratitude.
As a disabled dancer, Tai Lihua's pursuit of art never lacks hardship. With her gift and determination however, she will surely tide it over and bask in her silent world of splendor.
(chinaculture January 24, 2006)