77-year-old Chen Ailian portrays teenage heroine
Just like for a professional athlete, age is also the biggest challenge for a dancer. While most dancers in China choose to retire in their 30s or 40s, Chen Ailian is still going strong at the age of 77. And she has chosen to take on the role of a 14 year-old nymph in the dance drama “A Dream of Red Mansions.”
A Dream of Red Mansions
In 1981, the dance drama “A Dream of Red Mansions” premiered. It was immediately a smash hit and made the then 42-year-old lead dancer Chen Ailian an overnight sensation. 35 years later, she is set to take on the lead role again.
The show pulled in a full house at the Cultural Palace of Nationalities Saturday night. In one scene, Chen’s character comes to visit her grandmother and meets her cousin for the first time. The two fall in love at first sight. While she might no longer bear any physical resemblance to a teenage girl, her performance in every aspect embodied the 14-year-old nymph Daiyu.
When asked why she wants to take on such a role at her age, Chen dispells any preconceptions one might have.
“I don’t think it’s a challenge. I’m a dancer, as long as my body and my health allows, I’ll continue to dance,” said Chen.
Chen has danced the role of Lin Daiyu nearly 700 times. Sixteen years ago, when she turned 60, there was doubt if she could still take on the role. But Chen read the literary classic again and made her character even more palpable and alive than before. As she aged, she believes that she has become more in touch with the inner world of the character. But there comes the physical challenge of a decline in body strength.
How is a 77-year-old supposed to take on a role of a 14-year-old heroine? It might be an impossible task, but not for Chen Ailian. To prepare for the role physically, Chen has to maintain a teenage girl-like figure, in addition, she has to build the stamina and various skills required by a leading role in a dancing performance.
Chen says she has kept training every day. That is why she can still do the moves with great ease today.
“Just as we eat every day, as a dancer, I train myself for at least two hours each day. That’s a rule for a dancer,” said Chen.
For the audience, they are here to see a seasoned performer, and to be inspired by her spirit.
Chen joked she might apply for a world record for the oldest dancer. But one thing we know for sure is that the dance drama “A Dream of Red Mansions” is the longest running dance drama in China with a female lead played by one person.