More than twenty years ago, Li Hengda came to Seattle from China as a little-known dancer looking for a chance to dance. Next week he will make that same trip again. This time, though, he will be coming home to a city that knows him and he will be arriving to receive recognition for his work as a dancer in the form of a Mayor’s Arts Award.
“I know it is hard to get an award,” Hengda says over the phone from Beijing where he is currently working on a new production as a visiting choreographer. “I know a lot of famous artists in Seattle, but I know only one Chinese artist who has received an award of this kind. I thank the Mayor very much.”
In the late-‘80s, Hengda was a highly regarded dancer in China, learned in both China’s classical and folk forms. But there were few opportunities for him to perform, so Hengda studied Russian ballet to broaden his abilties and his market. After honing those abilties Hengda toured the West Coast, where Pacific Northwest Ballet’s founding artistic director Kent Stowell saw him and invited the young artist to join PNB. Hengda emigrated to Seattle in 1990 and danced with PNB for six years.
That’s not all he did. In 1993, Hengda founded the Hengda Dance Academy where he has developed and taught his own style of dance, mixing Eastern and Western traditions.
It is for this work, creating a style that “fuses Chinese and Western dance to form a unique dance style,” that the Seattle Arts Commission will be recognizing Hengda with the award next week.
Hengda does not discriminate at his school, inviting beginners and experienced dancer alike to take part in dance classes that are rooted in the balletic tradition, but embellished by the rhythms and movements of Chinese dance. Hengda aims to improve his dancers' strength, posture and knowledge of dance, while teaching performance-level material. Students have fared well outside the studio as well, consistently earning first-place finishes at the American Chinese Dance Contest in Vancouver, Washington, and recognition at contests in China as well.
Hengda is also very connected to his homeland. He is actively working to bring more Chinese dancers and performing artists to the United States, which is why he will have to fly to Seattle from Beijing to accept his award. There he is currently working as choreographer on a project with the China National Acrobatics Troupe, which he will bring to the West Coast next year.
Hengda says he hopes that the Award will help him continue to build his academy into a larger and more professional dance school.
“We know we did a great job,” Hengda says, with pride. “The Award will help us continue to work on and obtain our goals.”
The Mayor’s Arts Awards will be held at Seattle Center at noon on Aug. 31.
Photo courtesy of the Hengda Dance Academy website.