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Dancing on the Wings of Life
This is going to be a special experience for most audiences: to see a performance in which all the artists are disabled people.

"My Dream," a music and dance show of the China Disabled People's Performing Art Troupe, will open tonight at Beijing's Poly Theatre, and will continue through May 16.

This performance will also be something special for the troupe members, for it is the troupe's first public paid-ticket performance in Beijing. In the past their performances have been either charitable or specially booked.

"My Dream" marks the start of the group's market-oriented management.

"In the past, we focused on the social significance of the disabled persons' artistic activities," said Chai Jianming, deputy head and secretary-general of the troupe. "Now you will see the talent and creativity of these disabled persons as artists. They deserve to be respected, and financially rewarded."

'Wings of Life'

The change in orientation can be seen in the two dance works that Chai has choreographed for physically disabled persons: "Eagle Disco" and "Wings of Life."

The first one, which Chai created in the mid-1980s, had been performed by many physically disabled dancers over the years. The work reflects the perseverance of the disabled people through their continual falls and struggle to stand again.

However, "The Wings of Life," created only two years ago, features the beauty of life, which is a theme for not only the disabled, but all human beings.

The music of the ballet "Nutcracker" is used in this work rather than the disco music of "Eagle Disco," and the delicate motions of the swans replace the eagles' rigid movements.

"In the dance, we try to present our beauty, not our disability to the audience," said Li Si, one of the five dancers of "Wings of Life."

Li and the four other dancers in "Wings of Life" range in age from 21 to 35. They all lost their right legs in childhood accidents.

"Dance is the most striking of the special art forms of disabled persons," said Pi Hongjun, another dancer from "Wings of Life." "What we have lost physically is precisely what dancers need the most in their art."

Many of the movements in "Wings of Life" were created by the five dancers, for they know best how a physically disabled person can dance.

Since the premiere in August 2000, they have performed the work many times, and they are proud that they are performing a dance work that normal dancers cannot perform.

Another group dance work to be presented is "Thousand-Hand Bodhisattva," which features 12 dancers with impaired hearing.

Audiences are amazed at the way the 12 dancers co-ordinate their movements without being able to hear the music.

A special hand language signals the beat to the dancers. When they perform, their hand language teacher Wang Jing stands at a side of the stage signing the rhythm for them.

Guided by the hand language, the dancers elegantly depict the bodhisattva with a thousand hands and a thousand eyes, as he has been seen by many people in the Mogao frescoes in Dunhuang, in Northwest China's Gansu Province.

Musical Genius

Of the members of the China Disabled People's Performing Art Troupe, mentally retarded conductor Hu Yizhou (Zhou Zhou) is perhaps best-known to theatre audiences.

Hu's IQ is less than 30. He does not know his age or recognize bank notes, yet he knows precisely the parts of the instruments in a symphony.

He might be the only conductor in the world who does not read music, yet a special music talent enables him to memorize the melodies of all the sections in a piece soon after he hears it.

Hu was born on April 1, 1978, with poor intelligence but a sharp ear for music.

When he was a boy, he often went to rehearsals with his father, a cellist in Wuhan Symphony Orchestra in Central China's Hubei Province. He was always quiet at the rehearsal hall, listening to the music.

When the orchestra rested he would go to the podium to practice.

Years went by. Hu grew up with symphonic music and became a special conductor.

"Hu's pure heart enables him to concentrate on the music and convey the pure beauty of music," said well-known conductor Jiang Xiebin.

During the show, Hu will conduct the Symphony Orchestra of the PLA General Political Department in a movement from Dvorak's "Symphony No 9 in E minor - From the New World" and in Johann Strauss (Senior)'s "Radetzky March."

The programme for "My Dream" also includes blind pianist Sun Yan's solo of Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No 6," deaf dancer Tai Lihua's solo "Spirit of the Peacock," and physically disabled dancer Huang Yangguang and some deaf dancers' group dance "The Green Seedling."

The theme song "My Dream" will be performed by physically disabled singers Gan Rongli and Ye Lin, blind singer Yang Haitao and students from the Beijing International School.

Beyond "My dream"

Since the troupe's establishment, its members have overcome not only physical difficulties, but also psychological barriers in the process of artistic creation, said 35-year-old Pi.

While engaging in the "My Dream" shows, the artists have been creating their own dreams.

Pi said that when he gets too old to perform he would like to teach physically disabled people to dance. For such special experience is very rare.

Twenty-three-year-old Wang Qiong from Wuhan is one of the 12 dancers in "Thousand-Hand Bodhisattva."

Influenced by her mother, who is a dancer, Wang has had an interest in dance since her childhood. At the age of 16 she went to study at the Wuhan School of Arts. Wang has studied various forms of dance including traditional Chinese dance, ethnic dance and modern dance.

After graduation she joined the Wuhan Telecom Arts Troupe. Now she practices from 5:30 to 11:00 every morning.

Though she admitted she feels a little nervous on stage sometimes, she enjoys dance very much.

"I like the dance of Yang Liping," she said. "I want to become a dancer like her."

Wang said if she had enough money, in the future she would like to open a kindergarten for disabled children so that they can get a good education in the arts and other subjects from an early age.

Born humpbacked, erhu (a two-stringed bowed instrument) player Wang Xuefeng has a similar dream, which is to establish an art school where disabled people can receive artistic education.

"I'm 17 now," said Wang. "I believe I will realize my goal by the time I'm 27."

Wang was born in Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province to a now-deceased father who suffered from the same handicap, as does his brother. He is less than one metre tall, with a seriously malformed spine and lower limbs.

However, the disease did not take away his love for life and music. When he was a child, he started to learn the erhu with his father, who was a music-loving farmer.

When he began to show his talent in playing the erhu, his father sent him to study at Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang. In 2001 he was accepted by the China Disabled People's Performing Art Troupe for his great performance of "New Shepherds of the Prairie" at the fifth National Joint Performance of Disabled People.

In the "My Dream" performance, Wang is going to play two works, the impassioned "Horse Race" and the sad "Moon Reflected in Erquan Spring" created by blind erhu musician A Bing in the early 20th century.

"I regard music as something above my life," said Wang. "Music is not just for auditory enjoyment, it also brings spiritual enlightenment."

Wang said his planned art school will be for both disabled and normal people. The normal students will pay the tuition that is needed to run the school while the disabled will get their art education free.

"Beethoven and A Bing were both disabled persons, yet they are great artists," said Chai Jianming, deputy head of the China Disabled People's Performing Art Troupe. "I believe the disabled artists of our generation will also make their contribution to the world of art."

(China Daily May 13, 2002)

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