That the City Contemporary Dance Company would be performing a dance 'weaving together Eastern and Western historical episodes of concubines and femmes fatale spanning 3,000 years' is not a surprise; that one of the 'dancers' happens to be award-winning actress Anita Yuen Wing-yee is. True, Yuen - who was named Best Actress for her roles in C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri and He's A Woman, She's A Man - has been a beauty queen, having won the Miss Hong Kong crown in 1990. But she has always been better known as the tomboyish characters she often portrays in her movies. 'Don't worry,' the actress-turned-amateur dancer assures me with a grin, 'my part is not that big although I appear several times.' Dancing had never been her forte, Yuen admits readily. 'I never liked dancing, especially fast dances. I find it quite mechanical. 'Even when I released my album [last year], I refused to dance, so I just stood there and sang my songs.' When she had been approached by the company's artistic director Willy Tsao for its coming Asian Arts Festival programme, Sexing Three Millennia, she had impulsively agreed to try something new. It was a decision she quickly regretted. The prospect of dancing on stage brought back memories of the Miss Hong Kong pageant where the contestants were made to learn a dance. 'The chore ographers were always very scornful when we did badly. They used to place us according to how good we danced and I was always in the third row, which meant I was quite bad!' she laughs. She did what any self-respecting actress would do for a new role: she went out to research her role by signing up for modern dance courses. Her dance sessions only helped to make her more paranoid. 'Every time I finished a class, I would feel ill. I wasn't sleeping well because nightmares haunted me. So I told myself I couldn't go on like that; the pressure was too great. I was really terrified.' Since no announcements had been made, Yuen thought of just backing out of the project but was persuaded by her manager to discuss it with Tsao. The irony of it all was that Tsao never intended her to prance on stage as the equivalent of his professional dancers. 'Her appearance is an image and a symbolic meaning more than anything else,' Tsao explains later. 'This programme is all about beauty and there is a consensus that she is beautiful. From our previous encounters, I had found her to be very professional and very serious about her artistic endeavours. 'I didn't expect her to go for dance lessons but that is just an example of how seriously she takes her craft. I didn't want her to dance with the regular dancers. I wanted her to just find her own way of expressing emotion and motion.' Tsao's original idea for Sexing Three Millennia came from the tales of the royal concubines in olden China. It was always in the back of his mind to contrast the lives and fates of these women to their Western counterparts. 'I found many similarities and many differences. But I didn't want to force my findings on others so I just wanted to use special episodes in these women's history as a structure. The audience has a lot of freedom to explore and interpret.' Because of the idea of mixing East and West, there will be many familiar women - from parodies of Marilyn Monroe to legendary Chinese beauties - who will flit on stage during the 100-minute show. But none of these will be as prominent as Yuen's role as Han dynasty empress Zhao Feiyan. As legend has it, Zhao was a lowly song-girl when she caught the eye of Emperor Han Cheng. She was brought into the palace as a lower-rung 'mistress' but was soon elevated to queen because the emperor was entranced by her dancing prowess. One of the most remembered details about Zhao is that she was so slim and delicate that she could dance on the palm of a person. As history remembers it, the emperor ordered palms of gold to be built so that she could dance for him. In Sexing Three Millennia, Zhao makes three appearances in what Tsao calls 'symbolic intermezzos'. Each appearance is on a differently-designed palm to signify the three stages of a woman's life: youth, maturity and reminiscent old age. Having her own part specially choreographed helped to allay the fears of Yuen, as did the fact that she did not have to perform with any of the other dancers so she did not have the pressure of comparison. 'When Willy explained to me that he just wanted me to find my own style of interpretation, I was more reassured. He taught me a lot of the basic principles and after a while, it became more comfortable and not as scary,' Yuen explains. 'Willy has given me a lot of confidence in myself. At least when I told him my fears, he managed to reassure me. By letting me perform on my own, he also lessened my fears of being compared with the professional dancers.' Yuen, who was last seen on the big screen in the Shannon Lee vehicle Enter The Eagle, thinks her experience in Sexing Three Millennia will be a great help when she gets a chance to try to achieve another ambition: being in a stage musical. 'At least I would have studied the ways of holding the audience's attention so I would know what to do.' With such a femme fatale role, Yuen has also managed to get in touch with her more feminine side. 'I think my friends notice it more than I do. They say my movements appear more feminine than they expected. And you also develop better posture because you remember having to pull your shoulders back all the time. Actually, it has been quite fun,' she laughs. Yuen is 'about 70 per cent' sure she will be able to do a good job - if her friends in the audience do not make her lose her concentration by laughing. 'But don't expect too much from me. The other dancers really look terrific.' Sexing Three Millennia. 7.30pm, November 7 to 9. Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre. Tickets at $170, $140, $110 and $80 are available at Urbtix outlets. Inquiries: 2326 8597. Telephone bookings: 2734 9009.