New 'Dream' comes true for Chinese troupe


BEIJING -- Lithe dancers twirl in perfect sync to music they cannot hear, counting beats tapped out visually by coaches in the wings. Brothers blind from birth belt pitch-perfect melodies in 30 languages they do not speak.

These are the members of the China Disabled People's Performing Art Troupe, putting China's best foot forward ahead of next year's Paralympics in Beijing, a city with few wheelchair ramps and little obvious concern for the disabled.

The privately funded troupe was founded by Deng Pufang, the wheelchair-bound son of Deng Xiaoping, who opened China to the West. Twenty years later -- a month or so ago -- they traveled to Los Angeles to premiere a film about their lives called "My Dream" at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The film is a montage of concert and recital footage, and it found no immediate buyers, in spite of big ads placed in The Hollywood Reporter and on elevator doors at the American Film Market in Santa Monica.

"Dream" was produced by students at the Beijing Film Academy and the troupe's longtime vice chairman, Liu Xiaocheng, who co-founded the troupe with Pufang.

Liu and Tai Lihua, the hearing-impaired troupe president and prima ballerina, had hoped "Dream" would be subtitled in time to submit it as China's documentary entry for the Oscars, but because of their busy schedule mentoring 105 performers, aged 9-30, they missed the deadline.

"It's not about awards for us; it's about teaching China and the world that these artists are not disabled, just inconvenienced," Liu said.

The troupe's blind musicians have traveled to Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center and Royal Albert Hall, all without a conductor.

"The breath of the flutist is their conductor," Liu said, referring to Mao Bi, 26, a graduate of the China Music University. Mao's hands deliberately feel around him, grasping one bamboo instrument after another placed neatly in order behind him on his chair.

His breath audible from across the room, Mao is one of 55 performers who gave free performances at USC and UCLA from Sept. 30-Oct. 2.

Another member is Huang Yangguang, who lost both his arms at the shoulders in a farming accident as a child. Huang now dances "The Happy Life in the Farmland," his feet, neck and back swinging yoked water buckets to quench the thirst of flowers played by the deaf dancers.

Leading the determined troupe is Tai, who lost her hearing as a child. She joined the troupe as a 16-year-old, Liu said, then blossomed and went on to sing at La Scala in Milan. She now handles a fame big enough to turn hundreds of heads on a loud Beijing street she cannot hear. She is best admired in China for the serene "Buddha" face she dons like a mask while performing at the head of a line of deaf dancers in the "1,000-Hand Dance."

Despite his close connection to Deng Xiaoping through his co-founder, Liu said he shies away from government money and supports the troupe with donations from individuals and corporate donors.

Over the past six years, he has helped transform the troupe into a commercially viable business, which he says will not cave in to pressure from broadcasters who want to edit its performances for a mainstream audience unfamiliar with disability.

"Dream," directed by Huang Honghai, has piqued the interest of distributors from Japan, Spain and Canada, Liu said, but it has yet to be screened at home, where the media is under ever-tighter scrutiny ahead of the Olympics. At AFM, there was purported interest from a British distributor in purchasing the DVD and TV rights, but several weeks later no deal had been made.

Liu is hopeful that the timing for his film, and for his troupe's message, soon will be right.

"The film's China premiere will be after March, after a new government is in place, after everything is calmer," Liu said.

"We are grateful that Hollywood has chosen to portray so many people with disabilities," Liu said, adding that he hopes to screen "Dream" for China's president Hu Jintao, then "wait and see."