A Second Chance at Life as Dancer


Yungchia Chen speaks and moves with the quiet grace of a dancer who has been training for a lifetime. His long list of awards, honors and accolades during his 27-year career reflects his rich artistic background.

Just three years ago, Chen thought he was finished competing and was even considering going into retirement. A torn tendon in his Achilles’ heel area from a performance in 2004 had slowed him down and made him feel his age as a performer.

But when Chen was recruited for a dance competition in New York, he had one last chance to be back on center stage—and he took it.

In 2005, while teaching dance at Taiwan Arts University, Chen was spotted by Tia Zhang, a graduate of the renowned Beijing Dance School and a dancer with Divine Performing Arts, a performing arts group in New York. Zhang eventually convinced him to compete in the 2007 New Tang Dynasty Television Dance Competition in New York City. He won first place.

For Chen, the surprise was not winning the competition—he has won numerous awards in his career—it was the fact that he could still take to the stage and deliver.

“I was surprised during the competition that I could still dance—I could still participate and get an award,” recalls Chen. “I had already decided pretty much that I wasn’t going to dance anymore.”

Now an instructor at Fei Tian Academy of the Arts, Chen is a choreographer and principal dancer with Divine Performing Arts. Mr. Chen sees his life’s work as a way to preserve classical Chinese culture for generations to come.

“I think Chinese dancing has many layers of meaning for human beings,” says Chen about his craft.

Early Beginning

Chen’s career as a dancer began as a child in China. He was fascinated with dance, but what he saw lacked the inner meaning he longed to express.

“When I was a little boy, during the Cultural Revolution in China, there was nothing to watch but propaganda from the CCP [Chinese Communist Party],” says Chen.

At age 11, Chen joined Guizhou College’s Dance Department, and by age 16, in 1984, he became a member of the Guizhou Dancing Troupe.

Chen’s passion for his craft has led to a storied career as a dancer and a long list of illustrious awards, including recognition for passing on the essence of classical Chinese dance to future generations for a protégé’s award. He was given the “Gardener Award” as a dance teacher/choreographer for his student winning second place at the 8th National Peach & Plum Cup Art College Dance Competition last August in China.

The Peach & Plum Cup Dance Competition, referred to as the “Oscar Award of Chinese Dancers,” is revered among dance and other performing arts institutions. It is the largest competition in the country and the only dance competition with multiple categories.

While in Taiwan, he was also showered with awards, including the Formosa Award in 2004, Taiwan’s highest award given in a national dance competition. The same year, he was given a lifetime achievement award called the “Dance Flying Phoenix Dancer’s Achievement Award.”

In 1995 he married a Taiwanese woman and moved to Taiwan, where he continued his dance career. Now 38, he is passing on the tradition to his family—both of his sons are learning Chinese dance.

A New Beginning

Chen’s life almost immediately took another unexpected turn after moving his family to the U.S. last year. He started practicing Falun Dafa, or Falun Gong, a meditation practice that is banned and persecuted in his homeland of Mainland China, which the Chinese Communist Party feels threatened by because of its popularity.

In one year of practicing Falun Gong, more than the hue of Chen’s once sallow-looking complexion has changed.

“Before, even if I don’t go and argue with a person, I would be unhappy in my heart,” says Chen. “Like why does this person get more than I have? I felt a little envious, a little unhappy. Now, I’ve learned to let go.”

Chen was in three performances in last year’s Divine Performing Arts Chinese New Year’s show, which included a 15-performance run on Broadway at Radio City Music Hall.

As a dancer, being on stage requires absolute focus to avoid making mistakes. He says one way he focuses is to put all of his attention into the role that he is playing, to become that person. The sacrifices he makes are enormous, but in his eyes, so are the benefits.

“Dance is training, is learning, it really has to do with suffering, enduring hardship,” says Chen. “In this process, in this suffering, you have to find joy.”

The performances are so detailed and rich with color, intricate choreography, and inner meaning that they take him and audience members back to the roots of traditional Chinese culture.

“This performance is more traditional, and so it’s a more righteous kind of culture for the audience,” says Chen. “I think they relate to it—this traditional culture.”

Despite his achievements, Chen does not see his dancing career cooling down anytime soon. In the next 5-10 years, he says he’d like to train students and promote Chinese dance internationally.

“I think that traditional Chinese dance promotes very pure and traditional culture, and it is quite comprehensive,” says Chen.

An Unnoticed Rising Power


Our new executive branch leaders are warning us of death on the horizon. It might seem like an odd thing to do barely a week into their new administration, but that’s exactly what Vice President Joe Biden did in an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Jan. 25.

First, Biden acknowledged difficulties placating Pakistanis angry about missiles fired over the Afghan border, allegedly at al-Qaeda operatives seeking refuge in the wild Waziristan region. He then characterized Afghanistan as a country where both the Taliban and an illicit opium trade are flourishing. According to the CIA, opium generates $3 billion a year in “illicit economic activity” in Afghanistan. Aside from the fact that a large piece of this economic pie belongs to the Taliban, corruption in the country is widespread. A recent report from the New York Times’ Dexter Filkins describes the corruption as so extreme that it runs from the highest government office to the lowliest traffic cop.

Such disarray and chaos isn’t stopping the U.S. from a deeper commitment to the war there–mainly in the form of American troops. The Obama administration has repeatedly promised a buildup of about 20,000 to 30,000 troops in 2009. But with the war on terror, the estimated need for troop levels can be a lot like a proposed budget. Numbers can change.

Now Biden—and by virtue of his position the Obama administration—is warning the American people to prepare for death. Here’s part of what was said during the Jan. 25 interview with Bob Schieffer:

“So should we expect more American casualties?” Schieffer asked about Afghanistan.

“I hate so say it, but yes, I think there will be. There will be an up-tick,” Biden answered.

An “up-tick”? Translation: more wounded and dead. And not just U.S. troops. If the Americans keep their promises for troop increases, they will make up but half of the boots on the ground that is now predominately NATO forces from other countries. And they are already being killed and wounded in numbers we rarely hear about in the news. Total U.S. casualties in Operation Enduring Freedom, as it’s dubbed, already stand at 642, according to iCasualties.org. The total number of Coalition deaths is 1,042. The figures don’t include the wounded.

Afghanistan is a country that, by virtue of its very geography and nature, has thwarted would-be conquerors, invaders and mighty empires for years. As Helene Cooper aptly pointed out for the New York Times on Jan. 25 in her piece, “Fearing Another Quagmire in Afghanistan”, Afghanistan was long ago dubbed a “graveyard of empires”. To emphasize her point, Cooper started her piece with an eerie quote from Rudyard Kipling:

“When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains
And the women come out to cut up what remains
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.”

—Rudyard Kipling, “The Young British Soldier,” 1892

With the dramatic ebbs and flows taking place all over the world right now, it might be hard to imagine that a place like Afghanistan could become a rising power. Most countries fit into that geopolitical definition by virtue of a market-force influence, savvy business or diplomatic practices, or a hold on an increasingly valuable commodity, like oil. Nevertheless, perhaps Afghanistan should also be considered in this category as well.

A rising power could also be a nation-state that has the potential to be a virtual vacuum of law and order. Add in the presence of a formidable, unpredictable and bloodthirsty adversary like the Taliban, and some 70,000 Coalition troops—and you have a recipe for pure disaster. Disaster that will take lives and limbs, and that could have a domino effect on an already weak economy. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has already told the federal government we will need to spend about $136 billion this year for our Defense budget. It is precisely what former President Eisenhower warned about when leaving office: a military-industrial complex that is fed and sustained by its very existence.

If a so-called rising power can also be a country that has the potential to impact the rest of the world, then Afghanistan arguably fits into that category. For better or worse, this emergence is going almost unnoticed by the world community, and certainly by many Americans.

We are relieved to feel the pressure easing with the war in Iraq, and willing to believe that the darkest part of the night in the war on terror is over. But in Afghanistan, it could be just beginning.

U.S. Forces Will Engage More Heavily in Afghanistan, Biden Says

By John J. Kruzel for American Forces Press Service


WASHINGTON, Jan. 26, 2009 – As U.S. forces become more engaged with the enemy in Afghanistan, there may well be a rise in American casualties, Vice President Joe Biden said yesterday.

In an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Biden described the security conditions in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq — a trio of countries he recently visited — and President Barack Obama’s decision to close the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

He said Afghanistan has deteriorated due to a failure to provide sufficient economic, political and military resources, as well as a lack of coherent policy among allies involved there. The Taliban are in “effective control” of significant parts of the country, he added.

“The bottom line here is we’ve inherited a real mess,” he said. “We’re about to go in and try to essentially reclaim territory that’s been effectively lost.”

Biden said more troops are necessary in Afghanistan, where an estimated 25,000 additional U.S. forces are expected to deploy over the next 12 to 18 months, according to defense officials. Some 34,000 U.S. servicemembers currently are there.

“It’s going to require … some additional military forces. There are going to be additional efforts to train their police and to train their Afghan army,” he said. “And all of that means we’re going to be engaging the enemy more.”

Describing other factors in Afghanistan, the vice president said corruption is rife among the ranks of Afghan National Police, and that the country is the source of 95 percent of the world’s opium and heroin.

Asked if intensified engagement would lead to more American casualties, Biden said, “I hate to say it, but yes, I think there will be an up-tick.”

“As the commander in Afghanistan said, ‘We will get this done, but we’re going to be engaging the enemy much more,’” Biden said, quoting Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force and U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Biden met with McKiernan earlier this month during a Middle East fact-finding mission that brought the then-vice president-elect to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

The vice president said the United States is making progress in Pakistan, where the national army has increased its level of cooperation in policing a contentious region near the Afghan border known as the federally administered tribal areas, which he characterized as an ungovernable swath of land that is home to al-Qaida and other enemy combatants.

“We’re in the process of working with the Pakistanis to help train up their counterinsurgency capability, their military, and we’re getting new agreements with them about how to deal with cross-border movements of these folks,” he said. “So we’re making progress.”

He underscored that the president has pledged he would not hesitate to use action against high-level al-Qaida personnel in the area.

Using a football metaphor to describe the situation in Iraq, Biden said the United States is on the 20-yard line, which in football terms is 80 percent of the way to the goal.

“But now comes the really hard part. The surge did work. Our military has done everything we’ve asked of them, but there needs to be a political reconciliation in Iraq,” he said, pointing to the three elections slated for 2009 as key indicators.

He also emphasized the need for laws determining how oil revenues and political power will be distributed. Biden hailed the status-of-forces agreement that took effect Jan. 1 and will guide the security relationship between Washington and Baghdad as a “strong sign” of Iraqi political movement.


Taliban Fill NATO’s Big Gaps in Afghan South


By Dexter Filkins for The New York Times

TSAPOWZAI, Afghanistan — The Taliban are everywhere the soldiers are not, the saying goes in the southern part of the country.

And that is a lot of places.

For starters, there is the 550 miles of border with Pakistan, where the Taliban’s busiest infiltration routes lie.

“We’re not there,” said Brig. Gen. John W. Nicholson, the deputy commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan. “The borders are wide open.”

Then there is the 100-mile stretch of Helmand River running south from the town of Garmser, where the Taliban and their money crop, poppy, bloom in isolation.

“No one,” General Nicholson said, pointing to the area on the map.

Then there is Nimroz Province, all of it, which borders Iran. No troops there. And the Ghorak district northwest of Kandahar, which officers refer to as the “jet stream” for the Taliban fighters who flow through.


Guantánamo Bay Closure Order Elicits Swift Reactions

By Genevieve Long for The Epoch Times


The notorious Guantánamo Bay Detention Center in Cuba is set to close within the next year. As one of his first orders of business, newly inaugurated President Obama asked Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to pause military prosecutions at Guantánamo Bay on Wednesday. On Jan. 22, Obama signed an executive order to close the detention center within a year.

It is not yet clear how the nearly 250 current detainees, termed “enemy combatants” in the war on terror, will be handled.

Executive orders, which are controversial because they unilaterally legislate, can be challenged by a two-thirds majority in congress or through the federal courts. The issues tied to President Obama’s executive order on Guantánamo are rich in complexities.

“There are people who are being held at Guantánamo who are still bent on doing harm to America, Americans, and our allies,” said Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell during a Jan. 19 press briefing. “There will have to be some solution for the likes of them.”

According to recent Pentagon statistics, about 11 percent of Guantánamo detainees have returned to fighting, a “substantial increase”. Of former detainees, 18 are confirmed and 43 suspected of returning to fighting—61 in all.

The current number of Guantánamo detainees is approximately 250.

Swift Congressional Response

The congressional response to Obama’s executive order was swift on both sides of the aisle, as several congressional leaders issued statements on their websites. The reaction was mixed—a common question being where detainees would go after the center closes.

“The Guantánamo Bay prison is filled with the worst of the worst—terrorists and killers bent on murdering Americans and other friends of freedom around the world,” said House Republican Leader John Boehner (R-OH) in a statement on Thursday. “If it is closed, where will they go, will they be brought to the United States, and how will they be secured?”


Traditional Chinese Culture Showcased in Global Tour


by Genevieve Long

Peirong Hsieh has been surrounded by music, dance, arts and culture her entire life. Although a long road, it’s led her to her current job as a stage manager and piano accompanist with Divine Performing Arts.


Hsieh, a resident of Seacaucus, is the daughter of a famous Taiwanese ballerina, and studied dance, piano, and viola from a young age.


Since 2007, Hsieh has thrown the full weight of her musical experience into performing in the Divine Performing Arts’ Chinese New Year show that tours around the world. And it’s for a good reason—Hsieh believes in what she is doing.


“The content is to revive the truly traditional Chinese culture,” says Hsieh about the shows. “As artists we want to pass [this culture] on to future generations.”


One of her favorite instruments in the show is the two-stringed Erhu, largely because of the impact it has on the audience.


“Erhu has that kind of melancholy sound, it’s very Chinese—you can feel it,” says Hsieh. “It’s kind of melancholy, it’s kind of aching.”


In fact, to her the entire show is one special act after another, “Each act of our production has meaning, and that meaning can touch people’s hearts.”


The diminutive powerhouse has not only lived a life surrounded by music, arts and culture. She boasts Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in piano performance respectively at Boston University and the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University. She also studied at the Hartt School of the University of Hartford.


Roots of Culture


Growing up in Taiwan, Hsieh feels lucky to have been raised in a part of the world where traditional Chinese culture is relatively well-preserved. It is these roots that give her a sense of gratitude and motivate her to perform. She even illustrates her point by drawing on a classical quote.


“There’s a Chinese expression that says ‘if you give me a papaya, I’ll give you back a jade’—it means if you give me something I will remember your kindness forever,” says Hsiesh. “I remember that because it shows how Chinese people have a big heart.”


As a pianist, she believes who she is as a person is brought to the stage, and to every performance. Even though each performance has its own characteristics, there are moments when the performers and the audience are connected.


“It’s different every time but the spirit is still there,” says Hsieh. “It doesn’t matter if you’re on stage or in the show, it’s part of a picture.”


Through helping to paint that picture, Hsieh realizes how a performer who lives an upright life can benefit a live audience.


“With performing you can never hide your life from the world,” says Hsieh. “Maybe that day because you had a better understanding of life and of the world it comes out better [when you perform].”


A Spiritual Outlook on Life


Hsieh’s perspective is colored deeply by her upbringing and classical training, as well as her personal spiritual practice of Falun Dafa, also known as Falun Gong. She sees the connections with Falun Gong in Divine Performing Arts shows as a natural progression, since many of the performers also practice it.


“It’s natural for artists to talk about what they believe,” says Hsieh of the elements related to Falun Gong in the shows. “They want to share what they believe in. Just like Mozart, Braham, they all wrote requiems with Christian elements. When you go to a performance…you’ll just appreciate how they’re created.”


The contents of Divine Performing Arts shows are classical in nature, but also reflect what’s happening in China, which Hsieh sees as an artistic responsibility.


She adds that lyrics in the Divine Performing Arts songs include mention of Falun Gong’s principles of truthfulness, compassion and tolerance. They also explain the government-sponsored persecution of the practice, which has been ongoing since 1999.


 “Everything existing in the world, everything is within truthfulness, compassion, tolerance,” observes Hsieh. “As a pianist, when I practice I will find these principles. You find the balance—the balance and the respect.”


The demanding touring schedule of Divine Performing Arts runs from December through approximately May, although it is extended every year. But Hsieh says that no matter whether the performers suffer from jet lag or physical pain, or have conflicts, they always do their best to give it their all once on stage.


“It’s all beyond description,” she says, sighing and smiling. “If you’re touched by it, that will become part of you.”


Reviving Classic Beauty on Stage through Dance


By Genevieve Long

Offstage, Michelle Ren floats into a room the way you would expect from someone who has spent most of her life dancing and performing—gracefully and effortlessly. Onstage, her relentless training and striving toward the highest caliber of professionalism show in her ability to perform under pressure and in physically trying circumstances. In both settings, it is her innocent and charming demeanor that can captivate a room or an audience.

But despite being a world-class performer, dancing wasn’t Ren’s first passion in life.

“When I was young, I was dreaming that I would grow up and do office work,” she admits, giggling. This, despite the fact that she started training in artistic gymnastics at age six in mainland China and formally dancing at age twelve.

Dreams of office work eventually fell by the wayside, to the delight of audiences around the world who have seen her perform. She currently tours with Divine Performing Arts, based in New York.

Ren says her age is a “secret”, but regardless of years she already has a long list of accomplishments under her belt. She has won awards in China’s National Artistic Gymnastics Competition, the Liaoning Province’s Peach and Plum Cup Dance Competition, and the Popular Culture Award Competition. In 2007, she won first prize in the Adult Female Division of New Tang Dynasty Television’s International Chinese Classical Dance Competition.

In her current role as a choreographer and principal dancer with Divine Performing Arts, she gets to see the stage from more two very different perspectives. Ren says she likes choreography because she can watch others perform, but also likes performing because of the direct interaction with the audience.

As a choreographer, Ren says she sometimes has to work harder than the students she coaches. One performance she helped choreograph in the 2008 shows was a stage drumming act that requires dozens of performers to pound ancient Tang Dynasty drums in a rhythmic syncopation.

Ren says the choreography for the piece was extremely difficult because of the wide range of preferences audiences have for drumming styles. In the end, her inspiration came from ancient Chinese culture itself.

“In the past, ancient people, they often drummed,” says Ren. “Drums in Chinese culture signify warding off evil, so we wanted it in the show. We used the identical drum and chariot as used in ancient times—it has this element of battling evil.”

Ren says this attention to the detail of ancient Chinese culture is what makes the Divine Performing Arts shows unique. Included in this are elements of the ancient meditation practice Falun Dafa, or Falun Gong, which Ren and many other members of Divine Performing Arts practice. So it’s only natural that Falun Gong’s principles of truth, compassion and tolerance are infused into the show’s performances.

“Sometimes there is an instant in the dancing—you feel like our hearts are all together, that moment is really sacred,” says Ren. “You feel like you’ve seen the heavens and seen the gods. It’s not any particular show or performance—it’s the power of Falun Dafa.”

Ren puts it simply, “The purpose is traditional culture, pure beauty.”

Even with more than 200 performances so far, she says there is something special about every show. That’s not surprising, considering the extensive thought, planning and research that go into the show.

This painstaking attention to detail coincides with Ren’s personal view about dancing, which she thinks is about more than just doing “this movement, that movement”. This is especially the case when it comes to the performances that depict Falun Gong practitioners in China, who have been under the cloud of a state-sponsored persecution since 1999.

Ren digs deep on these types of numbers, once even seeking out a Falun Gong practitioner who was persecuted in prison to about her experience.

“She said that when you no longer have suffering in your heart, it’s almost a kind of joy,” recalls Ren of talking with the woman, whose name she doesn’t reveal. “I try to internalize that when I perform.”

This understanding of suffering for the sake of one’s beliefs, even second-hand, plays an important part in the performances that Ren ultimately gives.

“Many of the things we do are very touching to people, because we’re using our hearts to do it and the audience will feel it,” says Ren.

“The aim is to let people know that this is really happening,” she adds. “This is happening in China. These are real stories that are going on. [We want] to tell these true stories to the audience and let them know what is happening. Under such difficult circumstances we’re still telling the truth.”