Wang dances into the light after 20 years
It took Wang Jiajun more than 20 years to make his way from the back of the stage as a supporting player to underneath the spotlight as the leading dancer he is today.
He swings and spins to exemplify softness and delicacy; he leaps and jumps to show great muscle control; he can be stately and regal for classical work and also free and lyrical in contemporary productions.
“So many times I wanted to give up, but I always hung in there every time,” said the 35-year-old premier dancer from Shanghai Dance Theater. He should have already passed the prime time for professional dancers as their physical power diminishes after the age of 30.
“The golden time for a dancer is at his 20s, but here comes a dilemma — young dancers have the strength and energy but they don’t know how to act properly and accurately understand the part they play on stage,” Wang said.
“After 30 as life experience grows, it’s easier for a dancer to walk into the inner space of a character and the interpretation is profound, which supplements the physical decline.”
What it takes to be a premier dance drama actor is not only strength, flexibility, endurance and perfect technique but also acting skills to fully interpret and illustrate the role.
In Wang’s latest dance drama “The Unfailing Radio Wave,” adapted from the movie of the same name, he played Communist Li Bai who worked undercover in the Japanese intelligence bureau to send useful information by telegram during the 1931-45 war against Japanese invaders and died a martyr’s death.
For an entire four months, the dancer and actor immersed himself in the studio with intense training from 9am to 10pm, but the director was not satisfied as Wang didn’t act like “undercover Communist” and even wanted to replace him.
The basic dance training was not difficult, but Wang needed to spend time creating and shaping the character.
He went to visit Li Bai’s former residence in Hongkou District to see the telegraph in the attic, bought spy books and watched spy movies. He wore an old-fashioned watch and glasses, some tiny, subtle links to take him closer to the role.
The martyr through Wang’s performance began to come to life, full of vivid details.
“A hero is also a man, who has love and fear, joy and anger, but the faith he keeps makes him make the sacrifice,” he said.
It might also be a life’s motto for Wang himself, who never gave up dancing.
He started to practice dancing at the age of 10 when he was selected for Shanghai Dancing School, although his parents simply thought “the exercise can build up the physique.”
Splits, leaps, back bends and leg presses were the daily routine of the young boy, but the hard training didn’t scare him away.
Talented and diligent, Wang was admitted to the Shanghai Dance Theater after graduation and became a professional dancer. Young and inexperienced, however, Wang was always the back-up and last in line. But that didn’t dissuade him and he kept on learning and training hard.
He dances classical Chinese dance that combines the moves and steps from Peking Opera and ballet, requiring strength, power, softness, flexibility and endurance.
No one gets to the top without ambition and passion. The first chance that put Wang at the center of the stage came, though it was only a three-minute show in the dance drama “Wild Zebra,” something he had been practicing for about one year.
“I was very nervous the first time, not because of the audience but the senior dancers standing and watching me behind,” Wang recalled.
Every four years, the theater launches a new dance drama. So far they include “Let’s Dance,” “Wild Zebra,” “Farewell My Concubine” and many others, but Wang was always the backup dancer, a substitute in case the premier was sick.
“I didn’t think about that much actually. I could dance, which already made me happy enough,” he said.
The first dance drama where Wang took on the leading role was “Crested Ibis,” a story about environmental protection. He danced the whole two hours, from beginning to end.
“Crested Ibis” was a big hit. Within three years, Wang had performed in it more than 230 times at home and abroad. There were three tours of Japan, one of which lasted 64 days with 57 shows in 24 cities.
“My record was to perform two shows — one in afternoon and the other at night — every day for four consecutive days,” he said. “We have backup dancers, but people came all the way to see us. We just couldn’t let them down.”
With his physique and good looks, Wang would have had many other opportunities to make money in the entertainment industry, but he has declined all offers.
“It’s not that easy actually,” he said. “I’ve been dancing for 25 years, and it’s my life now. Only dancing on the stage can give me the greatest sense of self-worth and success.”