My Ballet Paintings

Lilac Dreams

Lilac Dreams 2014


Yesterday I finished painting a ballerina in lilac costume and called it “Lilac Dreams.” Perhaps subconsciously I was dreaming of the intoxicating perfume of lilacs at this time of year. Lilacs do not grow here in Hong Kong and I miss them. Lilac is also one of my favorite colors. I actually have several leotards, a warm-up shrug, legwarmers and a wrap skirt in this color! Anyway, it was fun to go back to painting after a long break of three years! To be able to complete this piece means the world to me , as I did an outline sketch more than a month ago before my major surgery. It was my hope that I would get to finish it during my recuperation. I did!

Below, you can see two more ballet paintings I made back in 2011. The “Full Moon Ballerina” is a collage of my painting set against a background that is a photo I took of the full moon, seen right outside my bedroom window. “Arabesque” was my very first attempt to use the software “Art Rage” to paint.

Although there is still a lot of room for improvement, I think I have made some good progress in my painting technique—a compensation for the big regression in my ballet technique! While I cannot dance with my feet at the moment, I try to dance with my mind and my hands 🙂

What do you think?

Full Moon Ballerina 2011

Full Moon Ballerina 2011


Arabesque 2011

Arabesque 2011

Dance Like Nobody’s Watching


“Work like you don’t need the money. Love like you’ve never been hurt. Dance like nobody’s watching.” This profound quote has often been attributed to either Mark Twain or Satchel Paige. For those of us who dance, there is perhaps nothing more liberating than to dance our hearts out as if nobody was watching. The mirrors, the teachers, the fellow dancers/dance students and the audience—all these prying eyes could take away the spontaneity from the act of dancing. It is thus a refreshing feeling to be able to dance for the pure joy of it—regardless of the rules and aesthetics—just like a kid would. I only recently realized that the origin of this quote is neither Mark Twain nor Satchel Paige. It is a song from the 80s called “Come from the Heart.” The lyrics were written by Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh.

You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money
Love like you’ll never get hurt
You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watchin’
It’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work.

The true meaning behind these lyrics is that for our artistic work and love to flourish, we’ve got to live from an intuitive and inspired plane. Whatever we do, we’ll succeed if we do it from the heart and not for any extrinsic motives.

If you’d like to read more about how these lyrics evolved into today’s quote and how the original writers were forgotten, check out this article on Quote Investigator. Here is the original song “Come from the Heart.” Enjoy!

Les Sylphides and More by Hong Kong Ballet

The Hong Kong Ballet ended its season with a mixed bill in the past three days. On the program was its Guest Principal Dancer Tan Yuan Yuan, whom I just couldn’t resist seeing. She had two numbers on the program, both being contemporary pas de deux with her long-time partner Damian Smith, who has recently retired from his principal role at San Francisco Ballet.

Dancer: Hong Kong Ballet Soloist, Liu Yu-yao; Photography: Chi Wai & Keith Hiro

Dancer: Hong Kong Ballet Soloist, Liu Yu-yao; Photography: Chi Wai & Keith Hiro

First, an assessment of the title program, “Les Sylphides.” Choreographed by Michel Fokine and originally staged in 1909, the ballet features a collection of Chopin’s most known piano pieces.  This was the only number that had live music. Daniel Chan, a nine-year-old local piano prodigy, accompanied the ballet on the first two shows, whereas the Sunday matinée one was accompanied by Nicholas Lau. His piano playing was not bad, but definitely not to be compared with Lang Lang… or my favorite, Vladimir Horowitz 😉 OK, OK, perhaps I’m not being fair there. Anyway, let’s turn to the dancers of this particular show. The main dancers of the pas de deux were soloists Liu Yu-yao and Li Jia-bo. I have always liked Liu Yi-yao for her poetic movement and how she covers space despite her extremely lanky physique. I think she was a good choice for this role, light, ethereal, an emblem of Romantic beauty. However, I don’t like the performance of her partner Li Jia-bo at all. His jumps did not have good ballon. His facial expression was strained, as if it was a constant struggle for him to “get her.” As a partner, his musicality is just a tad off, so that he often caught his partner’s waist a fraction of a second too late, leaving her to catch up with the music in the next moves. For me, they just didn’t work well as a pair on stage.

Overall, the piece was beautiful, as it was set out to be, but lacking in dramatic elements. The corps de ballet provided a beautiful ambiance with their formations, but I could see that most of them looked a bit bored staying in the same position or repeating the same port de bras. An apprentice, who will move on to the corps de ballet next season, Vanessa Lai, caught my eye though. Not only because she was in the same ballet studio where I studied a few years ago but also because I could see how hard she worked even in supposedly “boring” steps. Her épaulement and head positions were more interesting than many others in the corps. Definitely a young ballerina worth watching in the upcoming seasons.

The gems of the program appeared like meteors after the first intermission—so bright yet so fleeting! Tan Yuan Yuan came on stage next to Damian Smith against a dark backdrop and mists in the air. The piece is called “Finding Light,” chreographed by Edwaard Liang with music by Vivaldi (Concerto in B Major). This piece really showcased the mature dance partnership between the two seasoned dancers to the max. Moving like fluid, the two seemed to be groping in the dark, seeking light—just as the title implies. Sometimes the male partner would be moving in front of the female, who became totally obscured—something you’d never see in classical ballet. A lot of times they would be moving side by side. There wasn’t a single pause in the movements and there wasn’t time to breathe either. Every inch of their bodies expressed the emotions of yearning and seeking. When I watched Tan, her tiny body and long limbs were talking so loud without a word, moving as smoothly as a snake yet you could almost feel her soul trembling with exertion. I would’ve held my breath a bit longer but the dance was over too soon.


Tan Yuan Yuan and Damian Smith in “Finding Light” Photographer: Erik Tomasson

Next on the program was the pas de deux from “Le Corsaire” Act II. The dancers, Jordan-Elizabeth Long (from the United States) and Adilijiang Abudureheman (from China), were invited from the Royal Swedish Ballet, where Hong Kong Ballet’s Artistic Director Madeleine Onne was a principal for many years. Well, I think the choice of this number—being such a well-known one, with footages by the world’s best dancers all over YouTube—was a wrong one. It would be hard-pressed to find any surprise element and I was right. The dancing and costume of Long was utterly boring, despite the frozen smile constantly glued to her face. She also was not in the music. There was a lack of attack and passion in her entire approach. Abudureheman was a bit more interesting to watch. His jumps and leaps were powerful, his pirouettes not quite so—he did not finish using all the music for the  turns at the end. I was glad when the variation was over, as I couldn’t wait to see Tan and Smith again in the next number, “Five Movements, Three Repeats” pas de deux.

The piece was created by British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, set to the music of Max Richter, “This Bitter Earth,” sung by Dinah Washington. This was a very dark piece, almost depressive, as you hear the repeating lyrics with a sad voice:

This bitter earth
What fruit it bears
What good is love
That no one shares
And if my life is like the dust
That hides the glow of a rose
What good am I
Heaven only knows

This bitter Earth
Can be so cold
Today you’re young
Too soon you’re old
But while a voice
Within me cries
I’m sure someone
May answer my call
And this bitter earth
May not be so bitter after all

Tan and Smith appropriately expressed the depth of bitterness and despair with their body language. It was almost too sad to bear. Personally I do not like ballet set to songs with lyrics, so this was a minus for me. But the dancing and partnership of the two dancers redeemed this “fault” and again, the dance was too short to satisfy my desire to see Tan dance. But all beautiful things must come to an end, and I was glad that I went to see her despite the pain I had to endure traveling to the theater with my post-op body.

Tan is a goddess of ballet in my eyes. At 37, she is still dancing at her prime, and I hope to be able to see her perform live a lot more times. We are lucky to have her as Hong Kong Ballet’s Guest Principal Dancer.

The last on the program was a surprise. It was the world premiere of “Shape of Glow,” choreographed by Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo. A neo-classical piece set to the marvelous music of Mozart and Beethoven, “Shape of Glow” reminded me a lot of American Ballet Theater’s “Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2” choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky. Except for a much smaller stage and the lack of a theater set, “Shape of Glow” was every bit as interesting. Okay, I still prefer the dancing and the costumes in Concerto No. 2, but the music chosen makes the ballet surprisingly exciting to watch—Symphony No. 28 in C Major and Piano Concerto No. 27 in B Flat Major by Mozart; ending with a heroic “Consecration of the House Overture” by Beethoven.

The movements beautifully reflect the complexity of the musical structure, the partnership was fluid and fun to watch, and so were the futuristic-looking costumes—turquoise and black leotards that look like Star Trek costumes and female dancers going tights-free, showing their strong muscles. Credits go to Yumiko Takeshima—of Yumiko dancewear fame—for these costumes. I wish I could show you a picture but I can’t find one on the Internet.

In this show one can see what a melting pot the Hong Kong Ballet has become—as opposed to the homogeneous look in some other elite ballet companies. I think it is a good and stimulating development, and so is the collaboration with quality choreographers like Jorma Elo. Going forward, I hope our local dance company will put out shows of more consistent quality and try to tap into the local talent besides the international dancers and guest stars it has attracted in recent years.

My Dad is Baryshnikov

Well, not really. That’s just the title of a Russian movie about a boy who is studying ballet in the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow.

“Moy papa Baryshnikov” (2011), directed and written by Dmitry Povolotsky, is perhaps not too widely circulated outside of Russia and outside of the ballet circle. But for those of us balletomanes, this film is quite a gem. I enjoyed it not only for the ballet-oriented subject matter but also the clever treatment of the topic of a teenager’s coming of age and of the modern Soviet history of Perestroika.

The boy, Borya Fishkin, is played by Dmitry Vyskubenko (currently 16 years old), who in real life does study at the Bolshoi and is doing quite well—unlike in the film, where he plays an utterly clumsy and undisciplined ballet student who is always at the brink of being kicked out of the school.

In the beginning of the movie, Borya can hardly execute any proper positions and steps at all, and was constantly scolded by the teacher. The other classmates look down on him, except for one red-haired girl who seems to care about him. But his eyes are on the most beautiful and talented girl in the class.

While Borya is deeply in love with ballet, he is also very enthusiastic about all things from the West. Having some shady friends on his side, he regularly engages in black-market trading activities—selling Soviet souvenirs to American tourists at the Red Square in exchange for the American dollar, a banana or a pair of Levi’s jeans.

One day, his mother gives him an “illegal” tape containing footage of Mikhail Baryshnikov dancing on stage in America. Borya is spellbound. “He is God!” he proclaims. By coincidence, his friend sees that tape and comments very lightheartedly that Borya looks like Baryshnikov. This gives him the idea that Baryshnikov could be his father. His defection to the West must have been the reason why Borya ends up without a father! Bingo!

This “realization” changes Borya’s entire outlook. He starts to practice turning and bowing by watching the video tape over and over again. At school, his pirouette skills impresses the teacher and the classmates. He has suddenly become the center of gossips. Is he really the son of Baryshnikov?

The intrigue deepens while many opportunities open up to Borya, including the beautiful girl’s attention for him and a chance for him to take the lead role in an important school performance.

However, the story takes another turn from then on. I probably should not spoil the ending.

The actor who plays Borya is very convincing. Not only does he play a likable character, the feigned clumsiness in dancing must have been quite a feat for a serious dance student. All the skills must be unlearned and ugliness shown instead.

I also enjoyed seeing the portrayal of the Soviet society at the cusp of the breakdown of Socialism. I compare that to China under the Mao era, of which my parents have told many stories. It seems that there were still many more “luxuries” in the Soviet Union than in China, despite the prevalent lack of material comfort. What was common between the two societies was the rarity of meat and the need to line up for a long time in front of a shop for simple grocery items.

As for the coming-of-age theme, I really like the moment of epiphany when Borya “realizes” his status as the son of an international superstar, someone who is utterly different—which is what he strives for in a society where sameness is encouraged and individuality suppressed.

Because of the change in his belief system, his self-esteem suddenly goes through the roof and his performance shoots up miraculously! Of course, it is an exaggeration, a literary device in a fictional work. Still, isn’t true that when we climb out of the boundaries of the box we put ourselves in and believe in something larger, higher and more fabulous, “miracles” can indeed happen? And this doesn’t just apply to dancing. It applies to every area of our lives. It’s about living our fullest potential.

If it helps, find a role model, an archetype or a hero with whom you identify.

Feel the power of your own potential.

Allow the miracle in your life to unfold.

A recent video of Dmitry Vyskubenko practicing a variation in Don Quixote.

Related links:

The movie with Chinese subtitle available here.

What is the Mikhail Baryshnikov doing these days? Check out this video:
Citizen of Humanity

A Celebration of Older Dancers

Obscure Temptations, one of Jiri Kylián’s creations for NDTIII  

World-renown Czechoslovak-born dance choreographer Jiri Kylián will be celebrating his artistic creation for dancers over 40 during the Kylián Festival at the brand-new Korzo Theatre under the theme “All Ages Dance.” The festival runs from May 22 to 31, 2014.

The company, Nederlands Dans Theater III, was founded by Kylián in the early 1990s to incorporate dancers over 40—who are typically considered past their “prime.” Going against the grain, Kylián believes that we should all be able to dance “from the womb to the tomb”:

Through my long-time experience as a dancer, choreographer and artistic director, and through my encounters with East Asian cultures and the Australian aboriginal people, I have learned that we possess the ability to dance throughout our entire life and that it should be treasured and respected – Yes, we are able to dance “From the womb to the tomb”….!

What a refreshing and heart-warming message for older dancers like me, even though I am just an amateur.

Despite this encouraging development in the professional dance community, it still irks me that there are no over-40 professional dance company that showcases classical ballet—in a way that does not highlight the virtuosity of technique and great extension but emphasizes the grace and musicality of movements that are suitable for the dancer’s age and physical ability. Sure, there are individual ballet dancers who continue to dance professionally after 40. But is there a professional classical ballet company with dancers over 40 exclusively? Please enlighten me if there is!

Perhaps it is a laughable idea. The demand of classical ballet requires so much of dancers that one of the main reasons dancers retire after 40+ is that their bodies can no longer take it anymore. But what if choreographers adapt their works to suit older dancers? It’s not a matter of watering down movements, but showcasing what the dancers can express by whatever physical facility they have?

Choreographers may consider emulating what Sir Frederick Ashton had done for Margot Fonteyn toward the end of her career. He created the ballet Salut d’Amour for her to perform on her 60th birthday. It would be unfair to judge her dancing with the same kind of technique and extension expected of a 20-year-old. Yet, look at her! How expressive! What grace! What beauty!

Related articles:

Jiri Kylián on All Ages Dance

Jiri Kylian Starts a Company for Dancers Young at Heart

Here is the Kylián Festival program

Embracing Fear

Photo by Jordan Matter

The photos of Jordan Matter, New York-based portrait and dance photographer, are well known within the dance community. Recently I purchased his newly published collection of dance photography, “Dancers Among Us” and am really enjoying the stunning images, each one being meticulously choreographed and executed with great patience and skill. But what surprised me most was not the unusual visuals. It was the little stories about the photographer’s family life preceding each chapter that presented me with an element of philosophical delight.

For example, in the section of “Exploring,” Matter wrote about his young son Hudson’s experience of fear when he was faced with the prospect of a baby sister being born as his mother went into labor. “I’m a little scared,” Hudson said.

And the author’s response?

I had no idea how to alleviate a fear that I couldn’t comprehend. I picked him up and held him in my lap, and we sat in silence. He’s never been one to like cuddling very much, but that morning he wrapped his arms around my neck and gripped me for dear life.

After spending a few days with his new sister, the cloud lifted. Hudson was excited. Buoyant. Relieved. Out of nowhere, he looked up at me and said, “I am not sacred anymore. I thought that when my sister came, I would have to be a big boy. But I’m not a big boy; I’m just a big brother.”

He had been faced with a new reality for which he felt unprepared, and the mystery had frightened him. This may be one of life’s greatest struggles. Often we fear the unknown’s when we could be anticipating its rewards.

The last sentence really tells the essence of what fear is about. It is when we take the plunge and step into the unknown—embrace the uneasiness and the feeling that we might possibly fail, fall or die—that the greatest irony might be awaiting us on the other side, the irony of sweet rewards.