Through his dance company, Moving Dragon, Chengxin Wei works to merge ballet with Chinese classical dance.
Photo courtesy of: Chengxin Wei
Photo courtesy of: Chengxin Wei
Oct 31, 2012
By Chealsia Smedley
"Pretend that you are a sun king or queen."
Chengxin Wei stretches his right arm forward and holds his head high. His body stretches and surges with energy as his leg slowly extends into an arabesque. "I want to see you dance," he tells his non- major ballet class.
As a visiting assistant professor at the Ohio University School of Dance, Wei's teaching is enhanced by his depth of experience. Over the course of his career, he has performed and studied three major techniques in three different countries, all while discovering his passion for choreography and pedagogy.
"I love that he's energetic, straight forward, and he means business," said dance major Sydney Steward, who is in Wei's ballet and modern dance technique classes. "I always feel really inspired after taking his class."
But Wei didn't choose this journey. Instead, at the ripe and highly impressionable age of 11, "dance chose me," explained Wei.
On an ordinary school day in Dalia, China, a visit from the Beijing Dance Academy changed Wei's life.
The audition of a lifetime
The Beijing Dance Academy is China's highest institution of dance, and each year instructors choose 12 boys and 12 girls throughout all of China to audition for the school. That year they walked into Wei's classroom and measured boys and girls to determine who they would invite to audition.
"When they told me to audition, I didn't know anything about dance, but I heard they had bunk beds and that really drew me in," said Wei.
At the audition, he performed a song and dance constructed by his older sister and was chosen to study at the school.
"The first time, I started an octave too high, but I asked if I could do it again. My effort to try to fix my mistake was one of the reasons they chose me," said Wei.
He spent 11 years at the Beijing Dance Academy primarily studying Chinese classical dance while also training in ballet and modern. The program was in the form of a boarding school with highly specialized and rigorous training to prepare the students for professional dance careers.
"It wasn't until years of training that I really began to love dance and see the beauty of it," said Wei.
Clinging to his roots
After graduating, Wei was a principal dancer in the Guangdong Provincial Dance Theatre for three years before moving to Vancouver to join Ballet British Columbia, an internationally acclaimed contemporary ballet company. He performed with the company for seven years.
When Wei first moved to Vancouver, he attempted to assimilate into the Western ballet culture by shedding his Chinese classical dance roots. However, his movement quality was highly affected by his Chinese classical dance training, and others noticed his unique style.
"They had a real interest in Chinese classical training and how it helps dancers not only have technique, but also be expressive and use the body in different ways. I started wondering why I had to get rid of my Chinese background, because that's me, it's in my blood," said Wei.
He became interested in merging ballet and Chinese classical dance and started his own company called Moving Dragon in 2004 to explore that idea. He choreographed two full length (over an hour) works and collaborated with dancers and choreographers both in Canada and abroad.
This blend of Chinese classical dance and ballet has come to be a hallmark of Wei's style.
A calling to teach
After more than ten years of professional dance experience, Wei decided to go back to school to get his master's degree to teach dance in a college setting.
"I've been teaching all along," said Wei. "My mom was a teacher, and since I was little I got inspiration from her. I think being a teacher is a higher calling, and I want to share my experiences with students."
He taught and studied at the University of Washington for two years before coming to Ohio University.
"I really like the mission of the dance program here to create creativity, individuality and to help students pursue a professional career. That's what I ultimately want to do in this environment," said Wei.
He wants his students to learn technique and find new ways to execute movement, while also experiencing liberation of the body and mind.
"After their four years, I want students to be independent artists both physically and mentally, by really owning the material and learning how to be disciplined," said Wei.
Wei draws from his background in the professional dance world to share his experiences with students and help them learn the skills they will need to succeed.
"In addition to his professional experience in modern dance, Chengxin brings a new global perspective to our dance program with his background in Chinese cultural dance. Having danced in works by major choreographers like Lar Lubovitch, Alwin Nikolais, Paul Taylor, and several others, our students are exposed to someone who has very sophisticated and versatile movement vocabulary and body knowledge. This is key to their development as dance artists and scholars," said Travis Gatling, associate director and professor at the School of Dance.
In addition to preparing students for the projection into the professional world, he also wants to cultivate an environment of creativity and expression. Wei often tells his students to leave their worries and despairs at the door and enter the studio with a clear mind, able to focus purely on movement and expression.
"I think artists don't only make the audience enjoy the art, but it's a therapeutic journey for the dancer. I want them to liberate their bodies and mind. That is so important, especially in modern dance performance because we are dancing every day," said Wei. "My newborn son, when he is happy he's using his arms and legs to dance. We learn to dance before we learn to speak. Using the body's language to make conversation is the beauty of dance for me."