Home ArtsDance ‘Princes Can Be Asian, Too’: A Dancer Breaks Barriers in Ballet

‘Princes Can Be Asian, Too’: A Dancer Breaks Barriers in Ballet

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On a recent sleepy summer morning, a group of about 50 dancers from the New York City Ballet gathered in Lincoln Center’s sunny rehearsal studio to stretch. They were back from his three-week vacation, back in company classes, and preparing for a tour in upstate New York. Some even carried bottles of energy drinks and hand sanitizer. The dogs took a nap under the bar as the dancers began a series of exercises including pliers, tendons, jumps and pirouettes.

Tall and stately, Chung Wai Chan stood near the center of the studio. In May, he became the first principal dancer of Chinese descent in City Ballet’s 74-year history, and the fourth Asian to hold that rank. Dancers were still getting used to the routine. However, he was full of energy and vowed to use class time to work out each muscle.

“I need to focus,” Chan, 30, said. “I really need to push myself.”

Born in Huizhou, an industrial city in southeastern China, Zhang has a devoted fan base in his home country. (During the pandemic, he competed on the popular Chinese TV show “Dance Smash.”) He only joined City Ballet last year, but after a decade at Houston Ballet, he’s He has already made a name for himself as one of the rising stars. “Cage” by Jerome Robbins When “Partita” by Justin Peck Last season he was praised as an elegant and agile artist. Social mediaAt , he posts clips of dancing and tutorials on topics like building abs and applying makeup.

Embracing the history of being appointed to the City Ballet, Chan talks about the struggle of Asian dancers for recognition and the stereotypes about Asians that persist in classics like The Nutcracker. increase. His colleagues and teachers celebrated his promotion in the company, where nine of his 96 dancers are of Asian descent.

“It’s a great moment, not just for him, but for the organization. Georgina Pascoginis a fellow dancer working as an activist to end the degrading portrayal of Asians in ballet. “I can’t stress enough how great a joy this is and how proud I am. At the same time, I know we still have work to do.”

Chan hopes to help reinvent the art form, whose lineage is primarily European, and change the perception of ballet dancers. “I’m the first, but I really hope it doesn’t take another 70 years to have another,” he said. “Maybe the prince is Asian too.”

At an early age, Chan’s parents enrolled him in swimming lessons with Olympic aspirations in mind. But after going to ballet class with his sister, he had another idea.

At the age of 6, she started studying ballet and was one of the few boys in her class. His parents were skeptical of his passion and instead encouraged him to pursue a career as a lawyer, doctor, or accountant.

At the age of 12, he wrote a letter to his parents stating his determination to learn to dance and perform on the biggest stages in the world. They agreed to send him to a boarding school for performing arts in Guangzhou, a city about 90 miles away.

Chan broke out at 18, was a finalist at the 2010 Lausanne International Film Festival in Switzerland, and won a scholarship to study at the Houston Ballet. She joined the company two years later as a dancer and became a principal in 2017.

There, he earned a reputation as a confident and sensitive performer. He also collaborated with Peck, the resident choreographer of the City His Ballet, who created “Reflections” for the Houston Ballet in 2019.

Peck was impressed by Chan’s curiosity. ‘, it was completely clear that Chun Wai has tremendous work ethic, focus and stage presence.”

The two had dinner in Houston, where Chan expressed interest in dancing in New York one day. In early 2020, he was invited to a class at City Ballet and offered a position as a soloist from fall 2020.

But he will have to wait. The Houston Ballet canceled dozens of performances as the pandemic hit and brought cultural life to a halt across the country. During the lockdown, Chan taught online classes and recorded dance videos with friends.

In mid-2020, longing for the chance to perform in front of a live audience again, Zhang returned to China, where the coronavirus was low and many theaters remained open. He participated in the second season of “Dance Smash,” which gathered artists from various genres such as modern dance, ballet, and traditional Chinese dance.

Chan mesmerized the audience with a soulful performance of ballet and modern dance, advancing to the top four before being eliminated. He has amassed more than 200,000 followers on his Weibo, a Chinese social media platform similar to Twitter. His fans called him the “Prince of Ballet”.

He returned to New York last year as an outsider. Most of City Ballet’s dancers have been trained together for years at the prestigious School of American Ballet. There they will specialize in the choreography of George Balanchine, the company’s co-founder and longtime artistic director.

Trained in the Russian Vaganova Method, Chan initially struggled to master Balanchine’s choreography.

“Everything I learned felt questionable – it meant nothing,” he said. I felt much more comfortable, like I had more freedom.”

Jonathan Stafford, artistic director of City Ballet, said Chan quickly adapted to Balanchine’s aesthetic. “He can be very naturally elegant, but he can also be very dynamic at the same time. He just pulls you in.”

When City Ballet returned to the stage after the pandemic shut down, Chan made several debuts, including “The Nutcracker by George Balanchine” and a black swan pas de deux excerpts from Peter Martins’ version of “Swan Lake.” I did it. During this spring season, New York Times dance critic Gia Kourlas wrote, “In every role I’ve seen him dance, he’s been a noble and generous presence.”

Chan is eager to reconsider the cherished role. He said his Chinese identity influenced his style. For example, while playing the pas de deux in “Swan Lake,” he said he tried to be humble and tentative in expressing his love.

“I don’t just play the way Westerners do,” he said. “I incorporate Asian culture and Asian values ​​into my body language.”

Chan’s promotion comes at a time when cultural institutions are facing public pressure to diversify their ranks. About 27% of City Her ballet dancers identify as ethnic minorities, compared to about 14% in 2010. The recent surge in violence against Asians in the United States has echoed in the dance world, sparking debate about the lack of Asian dancers in key roles. Depiction of Asians in performing arts.

In recent years, many companies have taken steps to eliminate stereotypes. In “The Nutcracker”, short routines in which performers introduce tea from China, often incorporating bamboo hats and stereotypical movements.

Chan said he was encouraged by the effort to rethink outdated phrasing.

In China, Zhang’s success has become a source of pride. News of his promotion to principal dancer was widely disseminated, and he appeared in the Chinese media with headlines such as “Ballet His Night” and “After ‘Dancing His Smash’, He Conquered New York”. It’s been brought up repeatedly.

Chan is interested in taking what he has learned back to China. Ballet is under-recognised in China, he said. He also hopes to deepen his understanding of Chinese traditional dance in the United States.

After the performance, the audience sometimes tells Chan that they have never seen an Asian dancer perform a lead role. He was moved to hear young dancers of color say that his example gave them hope for their own careers.

“I thought I was dancing just for myself,” he said. “Now I dance for my family, for my audience, for the whole dance community.”

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