When Richmond Ballet dancer Shir Lanyi takes the stage for the final performance of her career in Shanghai, the moment will be especially poignant.
What led her to end her dance career was the loss of her mother a year ago to an aggressive form of brain cancer, glioblastoma. Every day since has made her feel like a completely different person, she says — but somehow stronger.
“There’s an overwhelming sense of sadness surrounding [the final performance] even though it’s an exciting time,” Lanyi says. “The circumstances are not necessarily the best. I’m taking what I have and making the best of it and moving forward.”
Lanyi will board a plane to China on May 17 with the rest of the ballet’s professional company to dance in the Meet in Beijing Arts Festival and tour the cities of Dezhou, Jinan and Shanghai. Then she will leave the stage to pursue an ambitious second career as an orthopedic surgeon.
Artistic Director Stoner Winslett put together the program, Made in the USA: Traditions and Innovations, for the festival and tour, featuring the choreographic work of American masters George Blanchine and John Butler. It also includes two pieces commissioned and premiered by Richmond Ballet: Val Caniparoli’s “Swipe” and Ma Cong’s “Lift the Fallen.”
It is Cong’s piece that most resonates with Lanyi. The inspiration for it was the death of Cong’s mother, and it was the last work that Lanyi’s mother saw her perform. Visually stunning and set to the intensely beautiful music of Max Richter, the choreography works with both the unseen world of spirit and memory and the physical world in which we miss the departed.
A company dancer for eight years, Lanyi was part of the original cast that Cong used in April 2014. By then, her mother had been diagnosed with cancer.
“Each part had a different section about his grieving process and how he came through it,” Lanyi says of Cong’s work in the studio. “I’d been touched by the idea that she was going to die, but I didn’t know what it was going to be like. So I was looking at it objectively. Now I am someone who is grieving so I can look at each section as I’m dancing it. I definitely draw that in for inspiration.”
Perhaps most important, Lanyi feels she inherited her mother’s strength.
“I can’t take credit for it.” she says. “It’s my mother. And it’s not just physical. She was a well-rounded human, interested in so many things. Nothing would shake her. She just really could and would do anything. That’s part of why I’m doing this. For a long time, she wanted me to transition: ‘It’s going to be too late soon. You might tear an ACL or you might start not getting the good parts that you do. Then what?’ Now she’s gone and I feel like I have to move forward. This feels like moving forward.”
In the fall, Lanyi plans to complete her undergraduate degree at Virginia Commonwealth University and then head to the University of California, Los Angeles as a full-time med student.
But she doesn’t consider it a big leap from dancer to doctor. “I think there’s a lot of correspondence between a career in ballet and a career in medicine,” she says, “in the sense that it requires dedication, hard work and perseverance. It just happens that one is more of an artistic field and one is more science-based.” Ultimately, she hopes to perform surgery on dancers.
“Being a doctor requires sort of an artistic mind. It doesn’t require the scientific approach 100 percent,” Lanyi says. “Injury or sickness is never exactly as you see it. You kind of have to bend your mind and work in an artistic way to see how to make this person better in the best way possible. As for being a surgeon, each injury and body is different. I watched ACL repair and tendon repair. You’re doing all these things to make the human body come back together. It’s an art.” S
Road to China preview performances, featuring the touring program Made in the USA: Traditions and Innovations, will run May 12-15 at Richmond Ballet Studio Theatre. Tickets are available at eTIX.com or by calling 800-514-3849.