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Megan Li is young, modest, and shy. Yet she performs leading roles onstage in front of packed theatres all over the world as a classical Chinese dancer on tour with Shen Yun Performing Arts. 

Megan Li is young, modest, and shy. Yet she performs leading roles onstage in front of packed theatres all over the world as a classical Chinese dancer on tour with Shen Yun Performing Arts. Onstage, she can be bold, “instead of hiding in a corner,” as she tends to do offstage, she says.

“I don’t really like to express myself in words. After dancing for a while, I’ve realized I don’t have to talk — I can express the role that I have, the dance, and I feel like I’m talking to the audience through my dancing,” she says.

Megan Li is young, modest, and shy. Yet she performs leading roles onstage in front of packed theatres all over the world as a classical Chinese dancer on tour with Shen Yun Performing Arts. 

Classical Chinese dance is a particularly rich and expressive language. Each minute gesture, as well as the dancer’s overall bearing, is meant to convey his or her inner thoughts, feelings, and values.

Cooperation and synchronization are emphasized, as opposed to competition for the limelight. Shen Yun’s mission to revive 5,000 years of Chinese culture emphasizes ideals rooted in Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, which are the essence of traditional Chinese culture. These have long been an integral part of classical Chinese dance as well.

Inner beauty takes centre stage

Shen Yun dancers place emphasis on the improvement of the mind and heart, because a central principle in classical Chinese dance holds that a dancer’s inner state is visible on the stage. Shen Yun is more than a performance group, it’s a group of people improving themselves together from the inside out.

Li gives an example of how improving her mind is reflected in her performance. “I have to always look inside to see if I have anything that’s blocking my feelings, preventing me from being happy. If I’m going through a hardship that I can’t overcome, [I look at] what I’m doing wrong, what I’m thinking wrong, anything that’s negative,” she says. “After I realize it, I try to think more positive. When I think positive, I feel more happy when I dance. When I act, I’m more in the mood, more into that character.”

Instead of thinking negatively about the physical pain she can sometimes feel in training, she says, “The soreness is a way to tell me I am improving, gaining the muscles that I need.”

Before joining Shen Yun, Li would watch the performance every year when it came to San Francisco, where she grew up. It always came in January, around her birthday. “It would be the best birthday present ever,” she says. “I would be very mesmerized every time I watched.”

She was into sports, and she was also shy. So, although she deeply appreciated the performance, dancing onstage wasn’t something she ever dreamed she would do herself.

The rhythm of life

Li and her parents had moved to the United States from China when she was 2 years old. She felt more American than Chinese, without a strong connection to Chinese culture. But her mother sent her to Shen Yun Academy of the Arts in California when she was 12 years old, in 2010, to deepen her understanding of her heritage.

The courses in Chinese history there opened her eyes to the beauty and depth of that heritage. She took dance classes, since dance is a major focus at the Academy. But she was surprised to find herself selected to join Shen Yun on tour, suddenly swept up into a life of dancing in front of thousands of people in some of the world’s most prestigious theatres.

She has been touring for four years, and is now a lead dancer for the company, which is the paramount company in the world for classical Chinese dance. Yet she’s still reluctant to speak of herself as skilled. She’s quick to doubt the praise of others, but she’s working on it, hoping to continually build her confidence through dance.

It’s been exciting exploring the world while touring, but the time-zone changes and other wearying aspects of travelling have been challenging. “We want to show everyone around the world what Chinese culture is,” Li says of the strong dedication the dancers have to Shen Yun’s mission. “We have to suffer to bring this beauty to others,” she says.

Purpose

Another important part of Shen Yun’s mission is to “show people the truth behind the Communist Party,” she says. Li and her mother both practice Falun Dafa, a spiritual meditation practice that originated in China, but which has been brutally persecuted by the communist regime since 1999. Many Falun Dafa practitioners have found asylum in the United States.

One of the roles that stands out to Li that she has played in Shen Yun was in a dance about the persecution of Falun Dafa. In this dance, a Falun Dafa practitioner (played by Li) hands a Falun Dafa banner to a baby girl in her mother’s arms. That mother is killed by the regime for her belief in Falun Dafa, and the baby is raised by her grandfather.

As the child grows up, she seeks to understand what happened to her mother. The child sees the practitioner played by Li and is drawn to her. The child reconnects with Li and with Falun Dafa, learning about the profound beliefs her mother died for.

Many people in China have been influenced by the regime’s pervasive, false propaganda against Falun Dafa. Li’s relationship with her father was difficult because he was influenced by the regime. Her father died two years ago, and one of her great sorrows is that he never saw her perform in Shen Yun.

Dancing in Shen Yun gives her courage. One of the legends depicted by Shen Yun especially resonates with her. It is the legend of Mulan.

In this legend, Mulan is a young woman whose battle-worn and weakened father is conscripted for a coming war. To spare him, she disguises herself as a man and takes his place, displaying great courage on the battlefield and winning honours.

“It makes me feel I should help others more, and help myself become better, too,” she says. The story of Mulan gives her confidence that she and her fellow dancers can boldly strive to great heights like Mulan and her fellow soldiers.

Megan Li is young, modest, and shy. Yet she performs leading roles onstage in front of packed theatres all over the world as a classical Chinese dancer on tour with Shen Yun Performing Arts. 

Megan Li is young, modest, and shy. Yet she performs leading roles onstage in front of packed theatres all over the world as a classical Chinese dancer on tour with Shen Yun Performing Arts. 

“People thought we were a little bit crazy — [the fashion houses] didn’t want to be the first ones to give us an order, because we didn’t have experience producing and manufacturing,” says Dechen Yeshi, cofounder and CEO of Norlha, a company that makes luxurious yak wool textiles and clothing from high up in the Tibetan plateau.

In high school, Yeshi remembers her Parisian mother — with whom she cofounded Norlha —  experimenting with different textiles. For example, she tried camel hair, but found it too coarse. However, when her mother read in a history book about someone wearing a beautiful chuba, the traditional Tibetan dress made of yak wool, her mom searched for samples of this fibre, which she was unable find. But she always had a hunch that it would be both extremely durable and warm for the animal to survive such harsh Himalayan winters.

Yeshi’s mom was right about yak wool’s unique properties, but there were reasons no one else in the luxury market was using this rare material.

“It’s a really challenging fibre to work with,” says Yeshi, who points out the difficulties cleaning, dyeing and spinning its short fibres. “But if you can get past those challenges, then you get the characteristics of yak wool. It’s just incredibly warm for a much lighter weight.”

The Himalayan village where Norlha set up its atelier also had significant challenges, such as  its lack of infrastructure — no running water, steady electricity, nor good roads. In terms of the actual textile, the nomadic people were using yak wool for tents, not clothing, so the quality of the fibre and ways of processing it would need to drastically improve.

“We had to use the local raw material, but the techniques we would have to adapt and be innovative,” Yeshi says. “The looms stretched out into the horizon, and the warps were so long and made for a grassland with space, not for indoors where you produce and manufacture.”

The artisans also needed training, so in 2006, a year before Yeshi and her mother opened the atelier, they trained a team of artisans for six months in Cambodia. They continued on to Nepal, discovering weaving techniques and British looms that were brought to India, then Nepal, during the Industrial Revolution. To this day, cashmere scarves from high-end stores are woven on these same types of looms, so Yeshi brought them back to Tibet, to handcraft the world’s finest yak wool.

“The weaving we’ve perfected, and our scarves really caught the eye of the fashion houses. Wherever we felt we could improve a little bit, we would add on other techniques,” Yeshi says. Though similar weaving techniques can be found in India and Nepal, Norlha has added a three-step quality control, undoing knots and re-stringing.

“This kind of quality check makes it so that handmade is not an excuse for badly made,” she says.

Norlha’s unique yak wool fibre and designs have made them a coveted textile in fashion houses such as Hermès and Louis Vuitton.

Later on, Norlha developed its own yak felting process, combining many traditional techniques, even one from Finland. Typically, only small accessories and products are made with yak felt, but Norlha’s techniques allow it to make much larger items.

“Designers love to buy yak felt for coats, hats, interior decorating or bags,” she says. “The uses are endless, so the yak felt is really our big innovation.”

A year after the atelier opened, Yeshi headed to Paris with Norlha’s first collection. Since her mother had some connections growing up there, Yeshi set several appointments but was faced with a stalemate.

Finally, Arnys, now owned by Berluti, took a leap of faith and ordered one hundred pieces. Yeshi and her mother were so excited — Norlha was a real thing; it was going to survive.

Despite this breakthrough, a few months later, the 2008 financial crisis hit, drying up Norlha’s prospects in Paris, forcing them to sell locally in Tibet just to stay alive. But the hardship of the crash would bring an unexpected change in the market.

“Once the dust settled from the economic crisis, people had a different attitude,” Yeshi says. “They were asking questions about where your product came from; are you socially ethical? It suddenly became the trend to work with smaller factories.”

Now Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Lanvin, Balmain, Visvim and Bergdorf and Goodman were placing orders, as magazines like Marie Claire spread the word about this chic, socially-responsible new brand in Tibet.

“We do try to make ourselves as cool as possible, but at the same time, in a timeless manner,” Yeshi says. “We want our products to be cross-cultural. We want it to be something that somebody from any city, from New York to Beijing, Tokyo, Paris, or wherever, can wear and feel comfortable in, and also have a very socially ethical side as well.”

Buddha nature

“I’m a Tibetan Buddhist,” Dechen says. “It’s not the Buddhism that’s based on ritual, but it’s about training your mind. It’s not so much about physically being comfortable. It’s much more about your mental satisfaction of what you’re doing and how you’re using your life. That becomes of bigger importance, and that’s what allows you to get through all the physical discomforts in Tibet.”

Yeshi’s success with Norlha — a journey of forbearance in the Himalayas with “frozen toothbrushes, shampoos, and lack of running water” — started at home with family values that fortified what the brand would become.

“I was encouraged at home to always do something that meant something in your life, to make your life interesting,” says Yeshi.

Yeshi grew up in the U.S. with her Tibetan father, mother and three siblings who would later become a philosopher, a doctor and a designer, whom Yeshi plans to soon recruit for the company.

“[My mother] was surrounded in an environment where her parents believed in investing in things that have a history,” says Yeshi. Her grandfather, for example, loved to collect exquisite tapestries. “She always felt that need to contribute back to something where you’re not just buying a product for the brand name but to have something in your house or that you’re wearing that tells a story.”

Norlha’s dedication to its artisanal heritage isn’t just about beautiful craftsmanship and quality — it’s about staying committed to the wonderful Tibetans who make this unique, luxury fibre and clothing.

Though the popularity of sustainability and Norlha has been growing, the commodity economy remains the driver of the luxury market, with fashion houses constantly pushing Dechen to lower their prices. In good conscience,Yeshi and her mother couldn’t dedicate themselves to a bottom line that would strip fair wages from their artisans,now their friends, their community.

Now, Norlha is focused on selling online, directly to the customer, communicating the brand’s story as well as alasting lifestyle.

“It’s communicating that your yak wool scarf or blanket is made with this quality from these nomads who are based on the Tibetan Plateau,” Yeshi says. “We’re trying to reintroduce that concept back into the world where you can have a wardrobe that tells a story of what you supportand where you’ve been. It’s not something that’s seasonalor about fashion — it’s about having something that can be your companion.”


Text by  J.H. White
Photo Courtesy of Norlha Textiles
Article  published in the December 2017 print edition.
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