Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Famed Chinese dancer adapts to her new disability

From The New York Times:

BEIJING --Last August a 26-year-old dancer named Liu Yan was supposed to give the performance of her life at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.

Considered China’s leading classical dancer, she had prepared a six-minute piece called “Silk Road,” which was to celebrate the rich cultural heritage along one of this country’s earliest trade routes.

But two weeks before the show, during a rehearsal at National Stadium in Beijing, she leapt toward a moving stage that malfunctioned, causing her to fall into a deep shaft and crash against a steel rod.

Unconscious, she was taken to a military hospital, where doctors performed emergency surgery for six hours.

Not long after, her family was told the terrible news: Ms. Liu had severely injured her vertebra and was paralyzed below the waist. It was unlikely that she would ever walk or dance again. At the peak of a golden career Ms. Liu lost control of the very limbs that experts say made her dances so magical.

Today, after recuperating for more than six months at No. 306 Military Hospital in Beijing, she is back home, adjusting to life in a wheelchair.

“Life is not that sweet or beautiful after an injury,” she said tearfully, during a recent interview here at the Westin Hotel. “You confront a lot of dilemmas and pain.”

Strangely, Ms. Liu’s story is barely known inside China because in August, fearing that news of her devastating fall would detract from Olympic celebrations, Beijing’s Olympic Committee asked witnesses and family members not to talk about the accident.

Even today, China’s state-controlled news media have not been given permission to tell the full story of what happened to a dancer so celebrated she was often selected to perform for China’s top leaders, including President Hu Jintao.

But a few weeks ago, in a small break from that news blackout, Zhang Yimou, the acclaimed Chinese filmmaker and director of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, honored Ms. Liu (pronounced LEE-oh) at an awards dinner here, and proclaimed her a heroine. When she accepted the honor, Ms. Liu was dressed elegantly in black, with her long silky black hair hanging off her shoulders. She smiled, brushed away a tear and told the audience: “Don’t be too sad for me. I’ll be strong.”

But she says she is now struggling to come to grips with the unimaginable while hoping beyond hope that some day she will walk and even dance again.

“The biggest disappointment for me is that my doctors gave up hope,” she said during an interview. “They think I should stay in a wheelchair for life. I’ll never give up. I’m still hopeful.”

Most days she goes through physical therapy, exercising her lower torso with stretches, hoping the lower part of her body will remember movement and somehow spring back to life.

But doctors say the chances of such a breakthrough are slim. The nerves that connect to her vertebra were severely damaged. Where she once had incredible control, now there is none. Ms. Liu’s journey to the stage began in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of North China, where her mother works as a doctor and her father as a judge.

In an interview last April, months before her injury, her parents talked of their daughter’s singular passion: classical Chinese dance, which traces back hundreds of years and has been influenced by martial arts, tai chi and Beijing opera.

“She was crazy for dance, even on rainy days,” her father, Liu Xueming, said while sipping tea at a Beijing tea house. “I’d ride her on the back of the motorcycle to class. And the teacher would be shocked to see us.”

At 10, he recalled, she was good enough to win admission to the middle school affiliated with the prestigious Beijing Dance Academy. Her parents took turns taking long train rides to Beijing to be with her on weekends.

She was enrolled at the academy by 18, earning praise for her emotional interpretations in Chinese classical dance dramas. At 23 she took the nation’s top dance honor, the Lotus prize, for an original dance depicting the life of a poor girl who suffers the loss of her true love during the late Qing Dynasty.

Long before her selection as the only solo dance performer at the Olympics, videos of her were popular on YouTube. Choreographers praised her technique and fierce, even stubborn spirit.

“She was the most talented dancer,” recalls Zhao Ming, one of China’s leading choreographers, who worked with Ms. Liu several times. “She had the perfect waist and the most flexible legs. Dance is the art of beauty, and it requires the perfect figure. And she had that.”

Zhang Jigang, deputy director of the Olympic opening ceremony, was so impressed by Ms. Liu’s ability that he pushed organizers to cast her on opening night of the Beijing Olympics.

“I thought, ‘She is just the one for the moment; she is the right person to dance in front of the whole world,’ ” he said in a telephone interview a few weeks ago.

When I first met Ms. Liu in March 2008, she had already signed a confidentiality agreement with the Beijing Olympic Committee, promising not to reveal anything about her opening ceremony performance. But she invited me to her studio, where she performed folk dances and meditations on classical Chinese dance.

Back then Ms. Liu was brimming with confidence. Five days before her fall, she said, she took a red scarf she had recently bought and posed with it on in front of Olympic stadium, the so-called Bird’s Nest. The photograph, posted on her blog (http://blog.sina.com.cn/liuyan314), shows her in a confident, open stance, her arms and legs stretched out, as if to say, “I can conquer the world.”

Then, on a balmy night in late July, with about 10,000 onlookers in the stadium for a rehearsal of the four-hour extravaganza, she tumbled off the platform and into darkness.

She still does not understand what went wrong. “I’m the most cautious dancer,” she said afterward. “I never got hurt before. I never even had a fracture.”

Her parents flew in from Inner Mongolia the next morning and rushed to the bedside of their only child. In the hospital a few days later they told me that their daughter had recently married. Her mother broke down. (Ms. Liu has recently declined to discuss her marriage.)

When rumors of her fall were leaked on the Internet days after the Olympic Games opened, China’s state-controlled media responded with a small online report saying she had been injured. The posting was accompanied by a photograph of Ms. Liu in a hospital bed, smiling and waving to the camera.

The picture was apparently meant to deliver a message that everything was O.K. during the Games. But Ms. Liu said there was little happiness. In the Chinese press she puts on a happy face and says she’s hopeful about the future. But in a series of interviews over the past eight months she admitted to feeling empty and even bitter.
Her dreams of creating her own dance dramas have evaporated, and she is still only 26. She said she could not bear to watch the opening ceremony on television in August, when a substitute dancer performed. In the hospital she battled depression and read medical journals to learn about her condition.

To her, she said, her body feels divided: the upper part is perfectly fine; the lower part is cold and feels like a stone.

“It’s heavy and pulled away from me,” she said. “Although doctors told me I’m completely destroyed, I think one possibility is my nerve system is sleeping.”

But more recently Ms. Liu has been trying to put on a happy face. She has expressed no bitterness toward the government or the Olympic organizers. She recently joined the Communist Party and has begun to make public appearances.

She now talks about studying to be a television broadcaster and asked a friend to make fashion photographs of her. She wants to dream again, and on some days insists she’s strong.

Now, her struggle to move beyond the recent past is starkly evident.

“From a dancer to a paralyzed person — it’s a bitter reality,” she once said while in the hospital. “I can’t take it. Before I could lift my legs to my head. And now my legs lie dead on the bed.”