December 19, 2008

An art form some three millennia old, Chinese dance is dynamic and expressive.

And it always tells a story.

Ancient legends and courageous heroic figures come to life through its leaps, its spins and its delicate gestures.

Welcome to Tim Wu's world.

The 2005 graduate of North Penn High School will perform as a lead dancer when the Greater Philadelphia Asian Culture Center and the Greater Philadelphia Falun Dafa Association bring Divine Performing Arts -- often called the world's premier Chinese dance and music company -- to Philadelphia for a series of four performances.
Scheduled for tonight, Saturday and Sunday at the Merriam Theater, it serves as the kickoff for a tour that once again will include more than 60 cities throughout the U.S., Canada, Germany, Belgium, France, Norway and Sweden.

Divine Performing Arts' gloriously colorful and exhilarating show -- with masterful choreography and graceful routines -- lights up a stage, with gorgeously costumed dancers moving in stunning patterns.

And, of course, it hopes to charm its audience right out of their seats with its sublime beauty.

Last year, DPA performed for some 600,000 live audience members as it toured 66 cities around the world.

Critics have called its shows "superb," "resplendent," "inspired" and "wonderfully positive."

"The performances by DPA not only tell us a great deal about the values and ideals of China's past," says Cindy Wang, the spokesperson for the Greater Philadelphia Asian Culture Center, "but also about what is happening in China today. It truly is a world-class performance that is remarkably uplifting."

Based in New York, the company is a nonprofit entity that is consciously independent of China's political regime, under which the traditional arts have long suffered. Those who practice Falun Gong, a spiritual movement, are included among its members.

DPA has broken ground by giving artistic treatment in its shows to classical themes and tales, as well as important social issues in contemporary China.

Born in Shanghai, Wu emigrated to America at age 4 and grew up -- first in Oklahoma, before moving to Montgomery Township when he was 9 -- with an abiding interest in Chinese culture, passed on to him and ingrained in him by his parents, Allen and Joyce.

After graduating from North Penn, he was in his second semester of studying pharmacy at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia when opportunity met desire.

"I heard about this program," says the 21-year-old Wu, "and my parents always emphasized that I was Chinese. I remember the stories they used to tell. And I'd always liked its history and culture."

He decided to study classical Chinese dance at the Fei Tian Academy of the Arts in Cuddebackville, N.Y., near Middletown. He began performing in New Tang Dynasty TV's Chinese New Year shows, and in 2006, became a group dancer with Divine Performing Arts and participated in its world tour.

But once again, he wanted to truly master his craft.

So in 2007, Wu entered the men's division of NTDTV's first International Chinese Classical Dance Competition. He earned a bronze medal.

He wasn't content. In the second such event this past August, he earned a gold medal and -- oh, yes -- the $10,000 prize that goes with the honor.

But what's that about the whole being the sum of the parts?

Here, they call it synchronization. The concept is for the group -- anywhere from 10 to 20 people -- to dance as one.

That, you can imagine, takes hours and hours and hours of practice.

"It takes time and dedication from everybody involved," says Wu. "We work on this maybe nine to 10 hours a day. We wake at 8, we take basic training classes in classical dance beginning at 8:30 in the morning, get a break, then we have rehearsals from 2 to 5 and again from maybe 7 to 10. It doesn't get boring, but it does get tiring. Sometimes, it's so hard to wake up in the mornings."

But he believes in the program -- and takes it very seriously.

"The thing is that (classical Chinese dance) emphasizes not only how your body looks -- and that includes your hands and your face -- but expressing your inner thoughts," he says. "It's not just all movement and technique. It's how you express your heart."