For ballet dancers, the one thing more important to success than talent and hard work might well be opportunity.
Every year, many dancers graduate from dance schools, hoping to get into a leading company or troupe to start a stage career, working their way up from corps de ballet to principals.
Ballet, a Western art form of grace, elegance and athleticism, is relatively new to China, where ballet is heavily influenced by the Russian school. It is also not widely popular, its stars not recognized at home, while they increasingly shine abroad.
In 1958, “Swan Lake” was performed in China for the first time by dancers at Beijing Dance Academy. On December 31, 1959, China’s first ballet company was founded; it would eventually become the National Ballet of China.
China’s leading ballet companies include the National Ballet of China, the Shanghai Ballet and the Liaoning Ballet.
In 2010, director Gan Lu made a nine-hour documentary “Shall We Dance?” about the National Ballet of China. It is emphasized many times throughout that it is love of ballet that keeps dancers struggling for perfection in an art form famous for its rigorous physical demands and difficulty.
Medal-winning Chinese athletes, whose feats may well be televised, return home from overseas competitions as heroes. When Chinese dancers receive gold medals in prestigious international dance competitions, they return home in virtual anonymity and continue to strive for perfection.
In addition to talent, technique and passion, opportunity — in the form of an overseas showcase — can take a dancer to center stage.
Chinese dancers increasingly are seeking professional opportunities in the West where ballet has a long history. They move to Europe, North America and Australia and over time have gained recognition from dance companies and audiences.
Tan Yuanyuan, a principal dancer with the San Francisco Ballet, is an international star. Still, few excellent Chinese dancers are known to the Chinese public.
“Ballet is the most common dance language in the world, which provides more opportunities for Chinese ballet dancers to leave the country, work with masters and perform in top theaters,” said Xu Jun, editor-in-chief of Ballet Magazine, a Chinese language multimedia bimonthly online journal that was launched in 2007.
Xu said that the Chinese dancers on the international stages were already elite performers in China, but starting a career in another country with a different cultural background is challenging.
“Compared with the older generations, young dancers going abroad today have more choices and focus more on personal development in career,” she said. “They have the desire to communicate with the world and have more opportunities to showcase themselves.”
Chinese dancers who succeed abroad encourage young dance students to go overseas. “They need to keep an open mind about possibilities in an unknown future and, more important, hold on to their values of career and life,” Xu added.
“These artists who have a great senses of both Chinese and Western culture are influencing more Chinese people and even the world during their journey of self-fulfillment.”
We interview five dancers, two of them married, who have developed careers overseas and performed as guest artists. Their stories are different but their passion for dance is the same. When they had an opportunity to perform on a Western stage, they seized it.