Setback Sets Stage for Fulfilling Life After 40
Taiwan’s contemporary dance legend Sheu Fang-yi failed big with her own dance company, an experience that she is glad she didn’t miss because it made her see life in a different light.
Setback Sets Stage for Fulfilling Life After 40By Hsing-yue Lee
Yilan County native Sheu Fang-yi joined the renowned Martha Graham Dance Company in New York at the age of 24 and became its principal dancer at 28, reaching stardom on the international dance stage. However, after her meteoric rise as a professional dancer, Sheu’s career went through some turbulence as she turned 35. Hoping to give back to her native country, Sheu returned to Taiwan and founded her own LAFA & Artists Dance Company. The venture turned into a commercial disaster, forcing her to pull the plug just as she entered the fourth decade of her life. Yet it was this setback that made Sheu explore new opportunities that gave her an even broader stage.
In this moving interview, Sheu shares her own experience seeing her aspirations hitting rock bottom and youth slipping away.
In 2006, I left the Martha Graham Dance Company, where I had spent 10 years, and decided to return to Taiwan to found LAFA. That year I had just turned 35. I had already served as the principal dancer of an internationally renowned dance company; I had everything I wanted, yet I still wasn't content and felt I should go for more. When I was still with Graham, a body could only speak one language, but I very much wanted to try more languages.
In the three-year period after returning to Taiwan and founding the dance company, I promoted dance education while also inviting internationally well-known dancers to Taiwan for collaborations. In the end, I failed big time, and I finally had to close the dance company.
At the time, my ambition was very big; I wanted to create a different new generation [of dancers] and stage, but it didn’t occur to me that I would be burning so much cash. At the time, I thought to myself: Are my demands really so high? I wondered if I was going mad, if all these requirements, including classrooms, stage specifications, technical gear and backstage facilities, were actually unreasonable. In the end, I said: “Fine, we’ll do it your way,” but I was the one who was suffering because when I looked back at the production, I hated myself: How could I have accepted such mediocre work?
If you want to insist [on quality], you need cash and physical strength. In the end, I had no choice; I had to break the whole thing off. The performances weren't performed, and the contracts weren’t fulfilled; the entire venture was deep in the red.
I began to realize that, when you want to do these beautiful things, when you are giving of yourself, you need to first look after yourself; you cannot tie yourself to everyone else, otherwise the entire ship sinks with you.
If you are not able to love yourself, you won’t have any surplus love to look after other people.
If you can’t achieve this, all these great ambitions and lofty ideals are just empty talk.
I have always been someone who is able to encourage myself. This period was the most difficult to go through because when I faced these compromises, I began to think, "just forget about it.” But once you let go once or twice, you tend to forget what you wanted in the first place. For me, it was the most unbearable time. Some things you just cannot let go. Dance is what I pursued most persistently my whole life; how could I just forget about it?
I spent around two months getting things in order in Taiwan, and then in 2010 I decided to return to the international dance stage.
That year I turned forty. When I left all by myself, I thought: Why has God left me alone in the end after working so hard for so many years?
Upon returning to New York, I went to see director Ang Lee. I told him: “I’m feeling old; I really don’t know what I could do.” He immediately asked me: “What are you best at?” I responded: “Dancing.” Then he said, “Well, then, keep dancing.” But I kept asking myself: “How can I dance? How should I dance?” Lee’s words forced me to think.
Later on, he asked me again: “Do you know the saying ‘at forty one has no doubts’?” He really drummed home this point, making me wonder how, at this point, could I not know what I wanted to do, what I was best at?
During the setback, I was very frightened; I was scared that this veteran dancer with nothing at all would be deemed unwelcome. Fortunately, the credit that I had established through my past performances helped me. In this way, I pushed through for two years and discovered that this experience was actually the biggest gift Heaven has given me aside from dance itself. If I hadn’t been left behind all by myself, I would not have known how big a capability I could develop.
Originally, I thought I could only dance, but I later discovered that, if I hadn’t stopped all these [dancing activities], I never would have collaborated with Akram (British choreographer Akram Khan) or the principal dancers of so many dance troupes, or have performed as the representative for a British dance theater.
[Editor’s note: In 2012, Sheu performed with San Francisco Ballet principal Tan YuanYuan, who hails from Shanghai, in Three Women’s Dance, several pieces co-commissioned by the Sadler's Wells Theater in London and the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing for a dance festival there.]
If I hadn’t suffered such a setback, I couldn't have imagined there would be so many possibilities lying ahead.
You must get into such a situation to force yourself to realize your potential.
If you have a home you can return to, a road that allows you to retreat, you will always feel embarrassed about many things you do. But when there is no way out, then the only thing left is "to ask”. I asked many dance companies or dancers: “Are you looking for people?”, “I would like to invite you to collaborate with me; would you want to do that?” Before, I had been terrified of losing face, I feared being rejected, but the only way I could get an opportunity was if I dared ask for one. If I didn’t, there would have been no opportunities. What I never expected in my wildest dreams was that after I asked, everyone said: “Are you serious? Of course, no problem.”
All this gave me much greater awareness regarding age. Because you must begin to face the decline of your body and fitness. This feeling does not stem from facing a rising younger generation, but from facing yourself.
I began to think, when I don’t have the body and energy of a 20-year-old youngster, what do I then have left on stage? What’s the difference between a young performer and a veteran performer? In fact, when standing on the stage, their stage presence, allure and maturity are not the same. This holds true not only for performers but for workers in every profession. When someone turns 40, do we only see old age and all that’s lacking? or do we notice the advantages and beauty of experience? In fact, (getting old) is a process that deserves very much to be savored and enjoyed. It scares people only because they do not understand it.
The amount of time my body can stay in top condition has become shorter, though; one movement might have to be divided into three sessions per day, and you can only do two or three hours of concentrated work per session; when it is over you need to take a deep rest. However, by using your body extremely efficiently, you can still achieve the same effects that you achieved when you were younger by practicing from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. I don’t think this is bad, because when you are experienced, you won’t do a lot of useless or silly stuff. Moreover, you know better how to prepare you own body.
I used to think that dancing was just dancing; I never thought about creating.
But after going through all this, I not only began to create, later on I even felt that creative work is not only something that happens on stage, it also includes creativity in life. For instance, in recent years I’ve done many dance education projects in Taiwan. Shouldering a backpack, I can go to any place to promote [these programs] because I always ask myself: Why shouldn’t it work?
As long as you have two hands and two feet and still have some physical strength, you can do it. Before, I always thought I needed to wait for someone else to explore and guide me, to create a stage and let me step onto it, yet I never thought of taking these matters into my own hands.
To explore and manage yourself is the most worthwhile of efforts and will never fail.
After forty, I still have dreams; the only difference is that my dreams are now more practical. I am very happy that I still believe in dreams and that I have already realized one. At sixteen, I dreamed of becoming a professional dancer, which I achieved at age 30. In addition to pursuing my dreams, I now pursue ideals even more. I want to accomplish more things through dance. But there is a precondition for ideals, which is that you must have the ability to take care of yourself; how can you talk about ideals if you don’t even have what it takes to do that?
For me, this experience of suffering a severe setback before turning forty has been the gift of years.
If we can treat the life experiences we undergo year after year as gifts, we are surely very rich.
Many people believe that growing old is a great loss. People often ask me, if I could, what age would I most like to go back to. I always respond that you can’t imagine how excited I was when I turned forty. Because I am thoroughly enjoying the happiness I’ve accumulated staggering along this road strewn with stumbling blocks over all these years.
Translated from the Chinese article by Susanne Ganz