Troupe

TROUPE: Says Liu Xiao Cheng, “There are 6.5 billion people in the world, and we want them all to see us. A movie is the only way.” (Lionel Derimais)

Dressed in black, two dozen Chinese dancers glide across the practice floor, performing a native Malaysian dance about young love and flirtation.

Liu Xiao Cheng is not happy. The gray-haired manager watches intently, grimacing. Finally, he cannot help himself.

"You need more practice with your eyes," he shouts. "This is a dance about flirtation. They must flutter!"

But the dancers cannot hear his voice. Each one is deaf. They have been paced by the rhythmic hand movements of two sign language assistants, whom they now look to for a translation of their leader's words. Everyone nods. Eyes flutter.

For two decades, the rail-thin Liu has nurtured a unique cast of more than 100 performers that has inspired audiences to view the disabled in an entirely new artistic light.

The China Disabled People's Performing Art Troupe features dancers who cannot hear, others who cannot see. There are blind singers and musicians as well as performers with physical deformities: a vocalist with spina bifida. A dancer without arms.

The group has performed worldwide, including in New York and Los Angeles, often to standing ovations. Clips of their work have circulated over the Internet.

Now Liu has taken his act one step further -- to the big screen.

This year, the Beijing Film Academy made a documentary titled "My Dream." Using lavish sets, the film intersperses performances with poignant behind-the-scenes footage. Though the movie has yet to be released in China, the cast is already aiming for an international audience.

Last month, members attended the American Film Market convention in Santa Monica seeking worldwide distributors. The buzz is that "My Dream" has the right stuff to earn an Academy Award.

"This film deserves to be seen. It's beautiful," said Patrick de Bokay, director of the Miami International Film Festival. "Its message is that you are limited, but you are a human being. And you are an artist."

Liu is impatient. He wants to break international boundaries now.

"We do 150 performances a year, but we only have so much time," he said. "There are 6.5 billion people in the world, and we want them all to see us. A movie is the only way."

In one set, ballet dancer-choreographer Tai Lihua leads 20 hearing-impaired dancers in ornate golden costumes in a routine known as 1,000 hands, in tribute to an eastern Bodhisattva. Seen head-on, the arms of the in-line performers move in elegant, breathtaking synchronicity. The act has been posted on YouTube.

In other segments, 16 blind dancers connected by ropes celebrate spring. Ballet performers who have never heard music move to the vibrations of the beat resonating beneath their feet. A Peking Opera act shows deaf dancers performing as blind singers mouth the words to the story.

At each performance, a hearing-impaired host uses sign language to express the troupe's theme -- that it does not take sight or hearing or full physical faculties to produce gorgeous art.

"Even a decaying tree provides shade. And a wilting flower sends forth fragrance," she says. "We are trying to hear sounds and rhythms in silence. To see light in darkness. To pursue perfection with disabilities."

Much of the energy behind the troupe comes from Liu, a 63-year-old former Communist party minister who quit his government post to advocate for the disabled in a country where the physically impaired are often harshly ostracized.

He is passionate about his troupe's mission. Cigarette in hand, he watches each practice with the eye of a critic. Pacing, posing, even crouching on a chair, he is everywhere at once, expecting perfection, pointing out impossible-to-see flaws.