Dancing to keep an Asian art form alive


By Marie Villani-York

Brigitte Arle is not Chinese. She doesn't speak Chinese. She can't read Chinese. She's never even been to China. So how exactly did the 26-year-old Riverdale transplant become a principal dancer in one of only a handful of authentic Chinese folk dancing companies in the country? She's talented, dedicated, inquisitive and not opposed to watching hours of Chinese soap operas - in Chinese, of course - to improve her craft.

Starting next week, Ms. Arle will take the stage at the Beacon Theatre daily to perform with her company, FuXing, in the annual Holiday Wonders show. The performance, produced by New Tang Dynasty Television, is, as Ms. Arle explains it, a rare opportunity to see traditional Chinese dance in all its glory.

"So much art these days is about sensation or shocking the audience or making them cry over something," Ms. Arle said. "This show is about happiness and beauty and hope that comes with the holiday season. It's very hopeful to me to show this dying art form."

She will be one of only a few non-Chinese dancers on stage, and she is the only white female dancer in her own 30-member company. The black-haired beauty's ability to quickly rise up the ranks of the fledgling FuXing troupe is a testament to her talent.

Ms. Arle, a Manhattan native, came into the dancing world at a later age than most professional dancers - 12. Still, she was accepted into LaGuardia High School of Music and Art two years later, and while going there, simultaneously earned a spot at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance.

Trained in the Martha Graham style, the Fordham University graduate has had to break her long, lean body of what it's been taught for the past decade in order to conform to Chinese dancing.

"I had to change my idea of how I should move, where my moves should come from," Ms. Arle explained. "Graham women move in a very direct and fierce way. The strength is internal in Chinese dance."

Subtleties like the positioning of fingers or a look of the eye have meaning in Chinese dance. To perfect these gestures, Ms. Arle turned to an unusual source for inspiration - a popular Chinese soap opera. Though she doesn't understand a lick of it, Ms. Arle can watch the drama for hours.

"Even if you don't understand the words, you get everything from the expressions," she said with a laugh. (She is forced to often play this game of charades during daily rehearsals as well, where instructions and meetings are mostly in Chinese.)

While the learning curve is sharp, Ms. Arle is quick to point out that her experience in Chinese dance has completely transformed her views of dancing as a whole.

"When I started doing Chinese dance, I had to break away from how I learned to move previously to return to the origins of classic dance," Ms. Arle explained. "Ironically - because I am not Chinese - I didn't feel I was truly expressing myself in dance until I started studying and performing traditional Chinese dance."

Holiday Wonders will run Tuesday, Dec. 18 through Wednesday, Dec. 26, at various times, at the Beacon Theatre, 2124 Broadway, between 74th and 75th streets. Tickets range from $48 to $128 and are available by calling 212-695-7469 or going to www.ticketmaster.com. For more information, go to www.beacontheatre.com.