Feature Article: Principal Dancer Victor Li
ELITE Magazine is the premier luxury lifestyle magazine for Chinese in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. In its past issue, ELITE featured Shen Yun Principal Dancer Victor Li.
Li has been with Shen Yun since 2009. He won second place in New Tang Dynasty Television’s 2018 International Classical Chinese Dance Competition after winning third place in the same competition in 2016. He has performed in over 1,000 shows with Shen Yun.
From ELITE's A Dancer by Destiny and Determination
When Victor Li’s parents suggested that he follow his older brother’s footsteps and audition for an elite dance school in upstate New York, he agreed to give it a try, and by a stroke of serendipity, he passed the audition.
Upon entering Fei Tian Academy of the Arts, challenges began to materialize. “It was very tiring and painful,” Victor recalled of his early training. Nevertheless, despite the pain and hardships, something inside of him propelled him to keep going.
Li is now a principal dancer with Shen Yun Performing Arts, the world’s top classical Chinese dance company. Li is outgoing and confident, driven by a keen sense of purpose to share his passion for Chinese culture with audiences around the world.
Although his career has taken him to perform on stages across continents, being a classical Chinese dancer is equally—if not more—about the inward journey.
From Imitation to Inner Feeling
The movements of classical Chinese dance were evolved throughout different Chinese dynasties, and they reflect the unique culture of different eras. The fullest expression of the dance is achieved when meaning motivates the gestures, and they arise from a dancer’s inner feelings.
Li said that it has taken him years to develop “inner feelings” for dance. When he first started, he would just copy what he saw the veteran dancers doing. It took years of practice, but slowly and surely, he began developing a sense for the meaning behind the movements.
It is also the case that a dancer’s personality informs the movements, and not everyone can play all roles. At the 2012 New Tang Dynasty Television International Classical Chinese Dance Competition, he chose the role of a king from China’s late Spring and Autumn Period, and he didn’t place in the competition. Afterward, while further studying this historical period, Li learned that this king had a vengeful side that didn’t suit his own personality.
For later competitions, he chose scholarly characters or themes, even though he thought it would be fun to dance the role of a general. It was only last year that he felt ready to take on a more martial figure. He chose a scholar who “laid down the pen to take up the sword” because he felt a duty and love for his country.
Duty has also been a theme in Li’s life for the past several years. In 2016, he became a principal dancer and simultaneously took on the role of supporting newer dancers. He takes this responsibility seriously, and always goes the extra mile.
He recalled how as a young dancer, he watched and learned from older ones—not only to observe their dance moves but also to see how they acted offstage. So, he does his best to set a good example, joining his troupe for extra practice in the mornings and staying with them late into the evenings to be sure that everyone has mastered the day’s lesson.
This kind of commitment and determination is a key part of the mindset of a successful artist. In traditional Chinese culture, it was held that artists' state of mind to a great extent determined the quality of their art. Sincere optimism is also an important part of this mindset. Being an artist is a path riddled with difficulty and challenges. In order to succeed, Li has come to view setbacks and mistakes as opportunities to strengthen himself. He has also found that it is important to let go of negativity, because no matter how well-justified it feels, it is counterproductive to his art. “They’re for me to improve,” he said of situations that upset him.
Being able to mentally overcome difficult situations has allowed him to appreciate the struggle and sacrifice of those who came before him, and has helped him understand the inner feelings of classical Chinese dance.
Had he been able to grow up near his extended family, a younger Li might have been inspired to become an artist as a young child. In China, where his family is from, his mother and several of his aunts and uncles were professional performers.
However, because of their spiritual beliefs, his parents were forced to flee China when Li was a baby. After years of roaming as refugees, they were allowed to come to Canada in 2001.
Growing up in Canada, Li had little connection to his culture and roots. He said that he didn’t at all “feel Chinese.” However, distance did not change his destiny to dance, and Shen Yun’s mission to revive China’s 5,000 years of divinely inspired culture is important and personal to Victor’s family.
For millennia, Chinese people felt that their culture was given to them by the gods, and reverence for the divine was a belief carried through all of China’s dynasties. By contrast, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power, it tried to make atheism the foundation of society, carrying out numerous campaigns aimed at suppressing spiritual beliefs.
In 1999, the Party banned the practice of Falun Gong, the spiritual practice of Li’s parents. At the core of the practice are the principles of truth, compassion, and tolerance, and adherents are encouraged to work on themselves so that their conduct in daily life aligns with these principles.
Li and his family practice Falun Gong, and his mother and younger sister have also performed with Shen Yun. His mother said she was glad for him to dance with the company because she felt that it would be a healthy environment for him to learn and grow, and that it would allow him to do great good for society.
Becoming a dancer with Shen Yun has given Li a connection to his true heritage, and a respect for people of the past. “From history, you can learn from what has happened to the people before, what’s good and what’s bad, what’s right, what’s wrong. There are so many stories you can look back upon to help solve your own situation,” he said.
In classical Chinese dance, there is a principle that in order to go a certain way, you must first go the opposite direction. Not only is this aesthetically pleasing, but it also has an inner meaning that arises from the understanding in Chinese philosophy that the energies of yin and yang (dark and light) must be kept in balance.
Li and his family had to go West to find the true essence of the East. In order to succeed, they first went through great hardship—but like his ancestors, Li believes that the hands of destiny were guiding them throughout.
“I believe in predestination and consider myself blessed to have been born into a family of artists and become one myself,” Li said. “Trying to fulfill my destiny is what motivates me to work harder, and what pushes me to get up when I am down.”
ELITE Magazine — A Dancer by Destiny and Determination