Dancer-choreographer Chen Ailian has been active on stage since the 1950s. Her latest performance is the dance drama Dream of the Red Chamber.
Photo by Jiang Dong/China Daily
Legendary Chinese dancer-choreographer Chen Ailian is showing no sign of slowing down even as she approaches 80.
After two hours of working on her makeup and costumes and several phone calls, Chen Ailian walks out of her room. A glimpse of the dance floor angers her because she notices some footprints. "Ready to start? Let's start!" she says in a firm voice after the floor is wiped clean. Standing in the middle of the stage in front of a camera, the legendary Chinese dancer-choreographer, who is 78, shows no sign of slowing down.
Over Sept 14-16, she did three nights of performances to celebrate her career spanning 65 years.
She played the role of Lin Daiyu, a teenage heroine in the dance drama Dream of the Red Chamber, which is based on a novel of the same title written by Cao Xueqin during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
"I have played many female roles but I decided on the classic female role Lin Daiyu for this special occasion," says Chen.
"Since the novel has been adapted into different art forms, audiences are familiar with Lin, who is depicted as soft, fragile and tearful. But in my portrayal, I wanted to show Lin as dynamic, clever and beautiful."
Speaking about her latest performances, Chen says: "I am proud that we have performed the dance drama more than 700 times since 1981. We have toured the world and we are still doing it.
"I tell my students (at the Chen Ailian Dance School that she founded in 1995) that dancing is eternal and you can do anything with it as long as you have the passion for it."
Chen, who was born in Shanghai and grew up in an orphanage, started to study traditional Chinese dance in Beijing in 1952.
The same year, she watched a performance by the late Russian ballerina Galina Ulanova in Beijing, which was a life-changing experience, she says.
"She was so beautiful and I was overwhelmed by her dancing. After learning that she was dancing even after crossing 50, I made up my mind to dance just like her," says Chen.
"I also learned from her autobiography that she never stopped practicing the basic movements of ballet. So, I still practice for two hours every day."
After the Beijing Dance Academy was founded in 1954, Chen was transferred to study there.
Besides traditional Chinese dance, she was also trained in other dance forms such as ballet.
Her first break came while studying at the same academy when she played the lead role in a dance drama, called Yu Mei Ren, which premiered in Beijing in 1959.
Yu Mei Ren, which combines Western ballet with traditional Chinese dance moves, is regarded as the Chinese equivalent of Swan Lake.
After graduating, she became a teacher at the Beijing Dance Academy.
Chen also played leading roles in many other Chinese dance dramas, such as The White-Haired Girl and The Peony Pavilion.
In 1962, her performance in the dance drama Spring River in the Flower Moon Night, based on Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet Zhang Ruoxu's poem of the same title, won Chen four top prizes at the World Festival of Youth and Students, an international event organized by the United Nations, in Helsinki, Finland.
In 1980, Chen held a solo dance show in Beijing, the first of its kind in China, which showcased her techniques in traditional Chinese dance and ballet.
Chen says Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso, who is now 97, is her idol.
In 2002, the ballerina led her company, Ballet Nacional de Cuba, to perform in Beijing.
Speaking about Alonso, Chen says: "I admire those who pursue their passion despite their age. I still have many ideas about choreographing new dance dramas, as well as for my school. And even if one day I cannot stand, I still can dance in my mind."