In many ways, Huang is a Chinese version of Britain's ballet rebel Michael Clark (minus the dildos and chain saws). But this teen heartthrob (he has a fan club) takes the best of various traditional Chinese genres—martial arts, Beijing opera and acrobatic shows—and blends them together to create a new, action-packed contemporary Chinese dance that is in tune with today's Crouching Tiger-influenced audiences. "I've danced with him a couple times," says the acclaimed American dancer Rasta Thomas, now at the Kirov Ballet. "It's intimidating!"
Huang may be to dance what Ang Lee is to film: both have found a way to present traditional Chinese culture and make it contemporary. Huang's works like the Drunken Drum and Terra-cotta Warriors have managed to break out from the dance-world ghetto to become bonafide pop-culture phenomena. "Chinese people have a problem when they think about the past," Huang explains of his merging of East and West, old and new. "They think like people from the past. I'm trying to interpret history through the filter of a modern person." Considering the passion of his mission, it's hard to imagine that this delicate-looking man with lithe limbs and narrow torso—he looks genetically engineered for arabesques—almost didn't become a dancer at all.
Originally it was the dream of his parents who had been performers during the Cultural Revolution. But as a kid Huang was denied entrance to the Beijing Dance Academy's Middle School three times because he was too short. "They wouldn't even let me audition!" Huang laments. "They saw me in line and shooed me away." To make up for nature's oversight, his father constructed a crude iron ring, bolted it to the rafters of their home and hung Huang from it upside down every afternoon. Huang swears it stretched his legs 3 cm and gained him entrance into the Shanghai Dance Academy.
Once there, it wasn't the pas de deux but the flashy athleticism that turned him on. Huang was a diligent, award-winning student but, upon finishing his schooling, he stopped following the rules. On a trip to Hong Kong he had an epiphany. "I noticed that Taiwanese dancers had very strong, traditional Chinese roots," he says. "Hong Kong, even though it is Chinese, has a lot of Western influence. Then I looked at my own group—we were jumping and spinning but had no direction. I wanted to change that."
But change is hard work. On this cold, winter night Huang, as official artistic director of the government-sponsored Shanghai Song and Dance Ensemble, is rehearsing at a practice hall in the outer suburbs of Shanghai. The turquoise linoleum floor is cracked and chipped. Strips of white cloth bandage the warped practice bar that rings the room. And two 2-m-tall heaters by a glass wall barely keep the dancers warm between routines. Now it's Huang's turn to perform. Quickly marking the moves with three other male dancers, he turns on the music and jogs into formation. The pounding of drums begins and the quiet, demanding director in mismatched gray sweats is transformed.
Picture this: the best 40-second kung fu blitz from the Matrix, paired with a series of arabesques and topped with a dash of bravura Beijing opera. Huang tosses himself 2 m into the air and, with his body perpendicular to the floor, spins 360 degrees, landing lightly on his feet. A ballet leap and acrobatic tumble later and he's perfectly aligned in a diagonal with the three other dancers.
How did he do that? "In the Chinese language," says Huang, "the words voodoo, martial arts and dance all sound similar." Whatever you call it, his Chinese fans believe he's the best thing that's happened to Chinese dance since a shaman conjured up a routine that made it rain.
But, he says, he's still got a long way to go as a bowler.