Legendary Performer Dies at Her Home in Beijing at 81
Prominent dancer-choreographer Chen Ailian, whose career spanned seven decades, died from cancer at her home in Beijing on Saturday. She was 81.
Known for her dedication and professionalism, she was among the first group of students in New China to train as traditional Chinese dancers.
As one of the art form's leading figures, Chen was also a devoted dance educator. She served as vice-president of the Chinese Dancers Association and headed the Chen Ailian Arts Troupe, which she founded in 1989, and the Chen Ailian Dance School, which she formed six years later.
One of her daughters, Chen Jie, who is also a dancer, said: "She was not only a mother, but also a great role model to me. She has left a huge dance legacy, and we will always miss her."
Chen Jie said that before she died, her mother donned the costume she wore for the leading role of the Chinese dance drama A Moonlit Night on the Spring River, which premiered in 1962.
Chen Ailian's performance in the production, which is based on Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet Zhang Ruoxu's work of the same title, won her four top prizes that year at the Eighth World Festival of Youth and Students in Helsinki, the Finnish capital.
Born in Shanghai in 1939, Chen Ailian loved to watch movies as a child and dreamed of becoming a film actress. When she was 10, her parents died and she grew up in an orphanage.
One of her early memories of dancing came in 1949 after the founding of the People's Republic of China.
In an interview last year, she said, "There were many art troupes celebrating on the streets and I was drawn to a group of dancers who were performing the moves of the Oroqen ethnic group (from Northeast China).
"One of the dancers bent her body while waving her arms. The way she moved was so beautiful and I imitated her actions. One of my teachers said I had the talent to become a dancer.
"At the time, I knew nothing about dancing. I just felt happy and had fun when I danced."
In 1952, Chen Ailian received training in traditional Chinese dance. The same year, she watched the movie Stars of the Russian Ballet, directed by Gerbert Rappaport, which features scenes from three ballets based on Russian classics.
One of the performances featured in the movie is The Fountain of Bakhchisarai, in which Russian ballerina Galina Ulanova plays the role of Maria, a beautiful Polish princess who is kidnapped and becomes an unwilling love interest for a merciless invader of her homeland who murders her family.
Chen Ailian described this portrayal as "a life-changing experience."
"When Maria met her death, the ballerina played the role by drooping against a wall on both pointes and sliding, turning her feet so that they sank against the floor," she said.
"She danced like a withering flower, transcending any words. From that moment, I wanted to be a great dancer like Ulanova."
Move to Beijing
In 1954, after the founding of the Beijing Dance Academy, China's first dance institute, Chen Ailian moved to Beijing to study. In addition to traditional Chinese dance, she trained in other forms, including ballet.
One of her biggest breaks came when she was 20 and still a student at the academy. She played the leading role in Yu Mei Ren (The Mermaid), a dance drama that premiered in Beijing in 1959.
It was the first Chinese dance drama to combine Western ballet with traditional Chinese dance moves.
After graduating, Chen Ailian became a teacher at the academy and worked with the China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater.
She also played leading roles in many other dance dramas, including The White-Haired Girl and The Peony Pavilion.
Recalling her early studies as a dancer, she said she was influenced by Chinese Opera.
"The academy invited many veteran Chinese Opera artists, which enabled me to master different skills, including those needed for Peking Opera and Kunqu Opera. These art forms influenced me and helped me to dance in my own style," she said.
Feng Shuangbai, president of the Chinese Dancers Association, said: "She didn't want people to see her in a hospital bed. She always wanted to be her best.
"She was a pioneer. When the country started to build up its own dance scene, she made a great contribution by playing many classic roles, gaining attention from international audiences."
Feng said that when a dancer passed the age of 40, this used to mean it was time to quit. However, Chen Ailian showed no signs of slowing down.
"She never stopped dancing. She showed the world that creativity never stops. I used to visit her during Spring Festival every year, when she continued to train for two hours a day," Feng said.
In 1980, Chen Ailian staged a solo dance show in Beijing, the first of its kind in China, in which she showcased her techniques in traditional Chinese dance and ballet.
A year later, she played the role of Lin Daiyu, a teenage heroine in the dance drama Dream of the Red Chamber, based on a novel of the same name written by Cao Xueqin during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
Chen Ailian, who was 41 at the time, said: "Some people doubted I could successfully play the role, because of my age. But for me, age is just a number and never a barrier to being a dancer."
In many stage adaptations, Lin Daiyu is depicted as a fragile and tearful character, but Chen Ailian portrayed her as a dynamic, clever and beautiful girl.
Her performance won her widespread acclaim and the part became one of the classic roles of her career.
In 2017, when she was 78, Chen Ailian staged three performances in Beijing with her 42 students to celebrate 65 years in dance, again playing Lin Daiyu.
She said before the first night's performance: "It is exciting for me — a new start to an old love. 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."
In her dressing room before she took to the stage in 2017, Chen Ailian did her own makeup and pressed her legs continually to warm up.
"I tell my students that dancing is eternal and you can do anything as long as you have the passion for it," she said.
"Many people have asked me how to stay young and energetic on stage. You can dance as long as you can move. You never get old when your dream lives on."
Her other daughter, Chen Yu, who like Chen Jie is in her 40s, is also a dancer.
During her mother's shows in 2017, Chen Jie worked as her assistant.
"She tried to take care of everything before the show started, such as the lights, the costumes and the music. She cared about the role and the audience," said Chen Jie, who also helped manage her mother's dance school.
"We grew up in theater and watched her performances from a very young age. She inspired us to dance and she was a strict teacher," she added. "She didn't consider dance as an art form only for talented people, but believed it was for everyone."
In 1995, Chen Ailian founded the Chen Ailian Dance School. Chen Jie said thousands of students have graduated from the school and her mother not only served as its president but also taught there.
Last year, Chen Ailian performed as a guest on the reality show Dance Smash, produced by Hunan Satellite TV. Paired with 28-year-old dancer Liu Jia, she impressed the audience, especially the younger members, with her professional technique at age 80.
On Saturday, Liu posted on his Sina Weibo account: "Her performance just took everyone's breath away. She showed me that a dancer can transcend the age barrier.
"I was impressed by her passion for dancing when I worked with her on Dance Smash. She had badly injured her waist, but she still danced hard during the rehearsal."
Liu also posted a photo of himself and Chen Ailian sitting on the floor of the rehearsal room.
Dancer Li Xiang said: "I worked with Chen Ailian a couple of times and she always encouraged me with her positive comments and was keen to share her experience. I could feel her love for young dancers."
Chen Ailian said in an interview in 2017 that Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso, who died last year at age 98, was her idol.
In 2002, Alonso led her company, Ballet Nacional de Cuba, to perform in Beijing.
Chen Ailian said: "I admire those who pursue their passion despite their age. I still have many ideas about choreographing new dance dramas and for my school. Even if one day I am unable to stand, I can still dance in my mind."
In 2018, to mark her lifetime achievement, Chen Ailian featured in the fashion magazine Marie Claire China, along with seven other senior celebrities, including singer-actress Rebecca Pan, conductor Zheng Xiaoying and actress Lisa Lu.
Each of them, dressed in luxury fashion brands, made rare appearances to share their stories.
Asked in an interview with the magazine what she would tell her younger self, Chen Ailian said: "I've worked hard and I can say that I've realized my career dream. It's nice to be young and it's good to be mature."
In an article published by Guangming Daily on Sept 2, in which she looked ahead to 2022, which would have marked the 70th anniversary of her career, she said, "I look forward to the year 2022 and I want to perform the leading role in the dance drama Princess Wencheng again."
Princess Wencheng was premiered by the China National Opera& Dance Drama Theater in 1979 to mark the 30th anniversary of the People's Republic of China.
It is based on the legendary story of a Tang Dynasty princess who traveled a vast distance to marry Tibetan patriarch Songtsen Gampo to strengthen ties between Tibetans and Han Chinese in the year 640.
Chen Ailian played the leading role of Princess Wencheng, with the production winning national awards after it premiered.
(Source: China Daily)
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