At full stretch
Mainland dancer Huang Doudou endured extreme physical training by his parents to increase his height
At 36, Huang Doudou is today one of the most accomplished Chinese classical dancers on the mainland - a surprise, perhaps, given the Wenzhou native had not always wanted to pursue dance as a career, and was once considered not to have the right physique for it.
Encouraged by his art-loving parents who were members of workers' propaganda performance teams, Huang started dancing before his teens, even though his dream was to join the army or become a chef.
He failed the auditions for the high school of the Beijing Dance Academy twice, because the judges thought his legs were short. But instead of calling it a day, his determined father made him hang upside down every day after school, with both feet hooked to a pair of iron rings from the roof beam. This way, he hoped his son's legs could grow longer for the next audition.
The boy grew three centimetres in height in three months and was accepted to the Shanghai Dance School. "This was a very dangerous method without any scientific proof and I hope no parents try this on their kid today," says Huang, adding, to this day, he still questions the rigid enrolment requirements of dance schools throughout the country.
"[They] suggest that a child's body proportion predetermines whether he can become a great dancer or not later on," says Huang, who now stands at 1.7 metres.
But what of the unconventional, if not cruel and hazardous, method his parents put him through to gain those extra centimetres? The father of a two-year-old daughter says he understands his father's intention. "As the only child in the family, I received all the love from my parents and all their hopes and pressures."
Though Huang has now surpassed his parents' expectations - he won the prestigious Taoli Cup Dance Competition twice in 1994 and 1997, and performed at the closing ceremony of the Athens Olympics in 2004 - his love for dance and Chinese music did not come naturally. It took him a number of years before developing a passion for these art forms - and it is here where Hong Kong came to play an important role.
Huang recalls that when he was studying and training at the Shanghai Dance School in the early 1990s, he used to listen to music by the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra on a borrowed cassette tape: "As a student specialising in Chinese classical dancing, works by the orchestra served as my guide in understanding the traditions of Chinese music."
This weekend, he will be in town to collaborate with the ensemble, which he has admired since his school days. His 24-minute solo will be a highlight of the Gehu concerto Zhuang Zhou's Dream by famed composer Zhao Jiping. The performance is part of the "Farewell, Snow in June and in Thoughts" concert, which marks the orchestra's 35th anniversary. Gehu is a hybrid of the Chinese bowed stringed instrument and the cello. The conductor for the concert will be the troupe's artistic director Yan Huichang.
Zhuang Zhou's Dream, which was originally composed as a cello concerto in 2006, is inspired by the well-known question posed by Zhuang Zhou, or Zhuangzi as he is more commonly known, an influential Chinese philosopher from the 4th century BC during the Warring States Period. Zhuangzi said he once dreamed he was a butterfly; but when he woke up, the philosopher asked was it he who dreamed he was a butterfly, or was it the butterfly which dreamed he was Zhuangzi?
To present this paradox on stage, Huang - as both choreographer and dancer - has created a piece that contrasts the two different images of Zhuangzi: a thinker locked in contemplation and the butterfly that he dreams he has become.
The work will showcase Huang's technical brilliance as well as moves that are more graceful and poetic. "I hope to show the audience a different side of me, [someone] who can dance with vigour but can also quieten down on the stage," he says.
Besides the mental challenge, the solo performance, which has no breaks, would be a physical test for any dancer. To gain stamina, Huang has been on the treadmill twice a week for long running sessions.
Though trained in traditional Chinese dance, Huang is no stranger to contemporary and more unconventional repertoires.
In the three-and-half-minute Drunken Drum, he danced on a two-metre diameter drum which was carried on the backs of a group of supporting dancers.
The celebrative piece depicts a northern farmer who happily got drunk after a bumper harvest. Huang became a national sensation when it was performed at the 1995 Spring Festival gala of China Central Television.
But his real break came in 1997 when he performed a series of technically challenging pirouettes in mid air in The Soul of the Terra Cotta Warrior. The six-minute solo dance received rave reviews and gained him his second golden Taoli Cup.
Since then, Huang has been hailed on the mainland as the Chinese answer to the former Soviet Union's Mikhail Baryshnikov, who became one of the greatest ballet dancers in history although he was under 1.7 metres in height.
The dancer started to perform overseas in the past decade. In 2005, Huang choreographed and danced in Six Dance Images from Zhou Dynasty in New York and, a year later, appeared in The First Emperor, a collaboration between film director Zhang Yimou and composer Tan Dun at the Metropolitan Opera.
"Dancing is a medium which can bypass language and cultural barriers," Huang says. "I am fortunate that I have been involved in a number of international productions since 2004."
Huang, artistic director at Shanghai Song and Dance Ensemble, has incorporated themes from Chinese history and culture in his more recent works, from Zen Shaolin (2007) to Mulan (2010) to this year's Red Mountain Goddess.
Since March, Huang has been at Hebei Vocational Art College in the provincial capital Shijiazhuang choreographing Red Mountain Goddess, a 20 million yuan dance drama featuring the female leader of a matriarchal tribe which existed around 5,000 years ago in northern China.
"History is my favourite subject," he says. "The older the story, the more space it provides for artistic creation."