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Philly choreographer Kun-Yang Lin is coming out of dance retirement to perform his world premiere, ‘The Wind’

The celebrated choreographer last performed eight years ago. In a Pew-funded project, he has been exploring techniques that can help dancers pursue their art beyond the typical early retirement age.

Philadelphia-based choreographer Kun-Yang Lin works with dancers at CHI Movement Arts Center in Philadelphia, Pa. Thursday, April 8, 2021. Lin has developed a new program that helps dancer keep dancing past the mid-30s retirement age that is common in the field, and he's using it to return to the stage as a dancer, after 8 years in retirement.
Philadelphia-based choreographer Kun-Yang Lin works with dancers at CHI Movement Arts Center in Philadelphia, Pa. Thursday, April 8, 2021. Lin has developed a new program that helps dancer keep dancing past the mid-30s retirement age that is common in the field, and he's using it to return to the stage as a dancer, after 8 years in retirement.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Several months into the COVID-19 pandemic, while dancers everywhere were frantically adapting their work for screen, Philadelphia’s celebrated choreographer Kun-Yang Lin was dreaming about the stage — specifically, his return to it. Having retired from performing in 2013, Lin, who is in his 50s, realized, “I have to come back. Dance is what I do. It’s what I believe.”

In the summer of 2020, as the nation locked down at home, Lin got to work in his studio. For the first time in over a decade, he began choreographing a piece for himself to perform.

He envisioned a solo that would use the imagery of wind as a metaphor for aging, creativity, and the pandemic. Dancing freely, he tested dozens of movement sequences and devised several variations for the composition. But when he stopped to reflect on what he had made, he couldn’t remember the moves.

Most people would not recall with a dancer’s precision how they danced to just 30 seconds of music. But for Lin, forgetting was devastating. As a young dancer, he impressed his teachers with his impeccable muscle memory and spatial awareness.

He went on to develop these skills into a novel movement and mindfulness discipline, CHI Awareness Practice, named for the Chinese concept of universal energy flow. This technique remains central to his work as the executive artistic director of Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers (KYL/D), the founder of CHI Movement Arts Center, and a professor of dance at Temple University.

“People always said I had a very distinct gift — a really-hyper-super awareness,” said Lin. “That was the first time I realized, My gifts! Oh! I lost my gifts!”

Lin had retired from performing after a series of injuries, which is unfortunately common in the dance industry, where dancers frequently leave the stage in their 30s. Since his retirement as a performer, Lin has focused on teaching and choreographing.

While he had at first come to rehearsals with preplanned choreography that he would demonstrate himself, he gradually came to rely on his dancers more, asking them to individualize and expand upon movement phrases.

‘Where is my body?’

This kind of collaboration wasn’t possible at the beginning of the pandemic. Working in isolation, Lin felt limited. “All my life is mentoring young artists, so I forgot about my own body,” he said. “I started to ask: Where is my body?”

The question was so consuming that he turned it into an official project. Where Is My B-O-D-Y? is an ongoing investigation of movement methods that might help dancers continue their craft as they age.

Funded by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, the project affords Lin time to explore exercises that can help maintain and even restore range of movement, without the pressure of producing a dance work. He hopes to emerge from the process feeling reconnected to his body, ready to resume his performance career.

For guidance and inspiration, Lin is collaborating with two dancers who have accomplished his goal of teaching, creating, and performing through middle age or beyond.

Pallabi Chakravorty is director of Dance at Swarthmore College. In her 50s, she is an expert in a North Indian dance form called Kathak. Gus Solomons Jr. is an acclaimed postmodern dancer known for his work with Merce Cunningham. In his 80s, he teaches at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts and continues to perform despite a serious hip injury that occurred when he fell “not dancing ... but standing in the kitchen,” Solomons said.

“I walk into the room, and I’m inspired,” said Lin, about his collaborators.

Four months into the 10-month project, the explorations have progressed through a series of “engagements” during which the collaborators “play,” Chakravorty said. A videographer records every meeting so the collaborators can watch themselves and provide each other with feedback.

In footage of one session, Lin slides his feet across a studio floor with his arms overhead. He then lifts and bends a knee, whips himself in a new direction, shifts his hips, turns his head, and follows his fingertips to the opposite side of the room. Solomons calls out instructions from a seat by the mirror: “Pull that knee … pull yourself around … focus … pull through space … long and short.”

“My prompts are about moving, purely and simply,” said Solomons, whose advice for dancing into your senior years is to keep “playing your instrument, fine-tuning your instrument.”

In footage of another session, Chakravorty teaches Lin the rhythms of Kathak dance. Together, they vocalize and clap out a beat, which becomes the pulse motivating their gliding steps, swift turns, and powerful stomps.

“We’re going back to the beginner’s mind,” said Lin. “When you’re young, you think about what looks good. Now, I’m not thinking about what looks good. I’m just thinking about what I can do” with a body that’s not as flexible or strong as it was at the height of his dance career.

‘We are not magicians’

During the first engagement, Lin pushed his body past its limit and couldn’t move for three days.

“We are dancers, but we are not magicians,” said Chakravorty. “By the time you are here as a dancer, middle age, all of us are hurting … Nobody wants to talk about it because somehow it will take away from the magic of dance, though I don’t think it does.” She noted that in many traditional Indian dance forms, such as Kathak, there is repertoire reserved for older performers.

Solomons added, “In Europe, they appreciate age more.”

The solo Lin choreographed last summer will reveal how age becomes an asset in dance — in the maturity of a dancer’s interpretation. Watching him rehearse, Evalina Carbonell of KYL/D observed, “We get to see … something that perhaps we don’t get to see much of because dancers leave the stage right at their artistic peak.”

Lin’s solo, The Wind, will premiere Thursday, April 22, at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in KYL/D’s first live performance in over a year, which will be danced on stage to an empty auditorium for streaming to an audience at home.

“We’re really excited to be partnering with the Annenberg Center,” said KYL/D’s business director, Katie Moore. “We have not had the capacity as a small- to mid-sized performing arts nonprofit to have the equipment and other resources required in order to present a livestream of our own.”

To comply with safety guidelines, only six of the 10 company members will perform, and they will remain six feet apart on stage for a majority of the show.

KYL/D’s assistant artistic director, Lingyuan Maggie Zhao, explained how the company applied CHI Awareness Practice to turn these restrictions into creative fuel. “There’s a piece called Inside from 2016 that was about the immigration journey during that time,” she said. “But we pulled out one solo for here and now. It’s a different time, a different situation. Chi is the energy, the climate, that affects the dancer and choreographer to approach the work differently.”

The 35-minute program includes five excerpts from prior works and Lin’s solo world premiere, The Wind. Together, these pieces invite audiences to reflect on this past year, culminating in a message of hope with The Wind, which is Lin’s 103rd choreographic work and marks his return to stage after eight years.

“There is a famous quote about how a dancer dies twice: when you leave the stage and when you really die. We’ve been witnessing that [with Lin],” said Carbonell. “Now, there’ll be a rebirth.”


Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers program debuts virtually at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 22. All tickets must be purchased by 7:30 p.m. Thursday for viewing through Saturday. Tickets for nonsubscribers: $25. Information: