Dancing off the Beaten Path: The Stories of Three Young Chinese Male Dancers

Photo credit: Self portrait by Mickael Jou (Click on photo to visit Jou’s FB page)

Male ballet dancers in Asia are a rare species. Not that they don’t exist. But generally speaking, parents do not encourage their sons to pursue the path of becoming a professional dancer because dancing is still very much considered a feminine activity and thus a dancing boy would be seen as a “sissy.” In addition, in Chinese societies, especially in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan, where there is scanty government funding for the arts, dance is not regarded as a prestigious profession, as being a dancer does not equate a big salary and a “stable” future.

Against these odds, there are a few young male dancers who have followed a non-traditional path and carved a niche for themselves. By defying the skepticism around them, these young men have become a source of inspiration for many aspiring dancers.

Mickael Jou (周楷), an American-born Taiwanese dancer and self-taught photographer, has wowed the world with a series of selfies showing himself dancing and jumping around the world. His photos have recently been published in the Huffington Post (http://huff.to/1GEPiAZ) and the Daily Mail (http://dailym.ai/1IlaDER), in which he is described as “the man who defies gravity.” The Chinese-language Apple Daily newspaper has even met up with him in Berlin and done a video interview after observing the painstaking process of him taking self portraits (http://bit.ly/1LQc27y)

When you look at Jou’s “selfies,” it is hard to tell that he is not a professional dancer. What surprised me the most is that he actually did not start to take ballet lessons until he was 18. He studied business in university and started working in sales. His adventurous spirit brought him from the United States to Paris, France and later to Berlin, Germany, where he is now working with photography. His passion of dance+photography has taken him around the world doing crazy jumps amid wide-eyed and head-scratching crowds. He is a perfect example of someone who lives outside the traditional box—a box that is perpetuated among Chinese families. He is a true inspiration of creativity for us Chinese people!

Photo courtesy of Meng Ting

Another young Taiwanese man, Meng Ting (孟霆), grew up in his mother’s ballet studio and eventually pursued ballet studies at Taipei National University of the Arts. But after graduation, he has chosen to join the army’s Honor Guard. The Taiwanese media published a report on this (http://bit.ly/1eCjDJG). Why has he chosen this career path? “The main consideration was the practical side,” he answered, hinting at the uncertainties of pursuing the ballet profession in Taiwan. He said he did not audition for a ballet company after graduation. But he still practices and performs in his mother’s studio’s yearly school performance, and finds tremendous satisfaction in that.

In the video posted by Taiwan’s Security Department as a recruitment ad (above), Meng said that he has chosen to work in the Honor Guard as there is a chance for him to perform on stage and he finds a parallel between the work there and ballet dancing. Both have very specific and detailed demands for each movement and require a strict discipline. At the same time, there is a constant need to come up with new choreography for the Honor Guard, so it is just as challenging as dancing ballet. The “selling point” used by the Taiwanese military is that a man who can execute graceful movements can also be suitable for work in the military—a perfect harmony between the soft and the hard sides of masculinity. Meng told me that the job suits him because he can find the perfect balance between financial stability and an outlet to make use of his dancing talents, applying the spirit of ballet in his military work.

Kelvin Mak

Photo courtesy of Kelvin Mak

Back in Hong Kong, my home turf, we have a “miracle” created by Kelvin Mak (麥卓鴻), who started learning ballet at the age of 16 and has successfully become a professional dancer three years later. The 21-year-old started off learning hip hop and fell in love with performing arts, moving on to ballet and contemporary dance. He graduated from the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, majoring in modern dance, and in 2013, joined the City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC), the most prominent contemporary dance company in Hong Kong, as a professional dancer. Why did he pursue dance? His answer: “I believe that dance has chosen me.”

Like so many Chinese mothers out there, Kelvin’s moother has never really supported his choice of becoming a dancer. But Kelvin dances on, in the hope that one day he will earn her support through his success. Among his numerous achievements so far is winning the third prize in the Classical Pas de Deux category at The American Dance Competition in 2013. Watch him dance in the YouTube links below.

Besides dancing for CCDC, Mak is also a dancer with the newly established Beyond Dance Theater (舞界限舞蹈團), founded by his ballet teacher Linus Kwok. When asked how dance has inspired his life, he said, “Although ‘impractical,’ dance gives me a strong sense of living in the moment…. The process is not painful at all, but rather, very joyful. Dance definitely brings me a kind of spiritual enjoyment. It gives me a channel to express my emotions.” When asked about his advice for students who are looking to develop a dance career, he said, “Be truthful to who you are at any given moment. Although you may be ‘imperfect,” you need to enjoy the imperfection, too. As a dancer, there is a bright spot in every step. Take in every moment carefully, and you will never regret the rest of your life!”

Congrats, Misty!

Photo by New York Dance Project

 

Congratulations to Misty Copeland, for having been promoted to Principal Dancer at the American Ballet Theatre a few days after she debuted her role as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. She is the very first African-American ballerina who has ever been promoted to the rank of Principal Dancer in ABT’s 75 years of history. A true historical landmark.

Besides her unique style of gracefulness and technical prowess, I really like her strength and her athleticism—qualities that the stereotypical ballerina does not and should not possess. Some critics have pointed at her muscular limps and disqualified her as a pure classical ballerina based on that! Others have argued that her artistry is not at a level where a principal dancer should be. Not having seen her perform live, I am not in the position to judge the quality of her presence and artistry. But summarizing the dance reviews I have seen so far and the videos of her dancing, I have no doubt she has great potential to hone this vital aspect and grow into her principal role. To me, a dancer’s evolution is even more interesting to watch than a “finished product” that is perfect and has no room to improve.

What truly excites me and thousands and thousands of audience members worldwide, is that she has opened a new window to who the modern ballerina CAN be. The possibilities are limitless. By far, the strength of Misty’s mind is her greatest asset, and she has become a true inspiration for so many people, especially aspiring dancers of color. Yes, her promotion is a complicated story and has generated innumerable controversies on whether she deserves the principal role just because she is a great black dancer, and whether or not ABT should be more inclusive in its dancer profile.

To me, it is too difficult to separate the underlying politics from the artist. But why should we? It is a healthy debate. Misty’s vocal and proactive stance on the need to make ballet more inclusive has created wonders. She is bringing in a whole new group of audience who would otherwise not have become interested in ballet at all. And needless to say, she has inspired countless little brown girls to explore and advance in the art form. Just that itself is no small feat.

Bravo, bravo, Misty!

Related articles:

Book Review: ‘Life in Motion’ by Misty Copeland

Misty Copeland Is Promoted to Principal Dancer at American Ballet Theater (The New York Times)

Misty Copeland’s success shows ballet leaping in the right direction (The Guardian)

Geeking Out With Misty Copeland’s First Ballet Teacher On The Bigness Of Today (Huffington Post)

Misty Copeland, New York Dance Project

Oprah Winfrey’s Supersoul Original Short on Misty Copeland

My Story as an Adult Ballet Dancer

Pointe Till You Drop, one of my favorite ballet blogs/FB pages, has recently invited its adult ballet student readers to contribute to its “Adult Ballet Dancers” album. This is not the first time the page owner, Johanna, an avid and long-time adult ballet dancer from Finland, extended such generosity to her fans. I have seen photos of other adult ballet students she posted earlier, and felt very inspired by all the stories behind them. So when she opened up a new album this time, I jumped on the opportunity to participate, in the hope that my photo and story would also be a source of inspiration for other adult ballet students, especially those who have not yet started and wondering if they should or can do ballet at all as an adult.

Here is the link to my photo and story, which I am reposting here on my own blog for my dear readers:

River Nymph

Photo by Westkenny

This photo was taken during a dance competition I participated in two years ago, when I was 41—the first and only time I ever performed on stage. It was a special moment as I was dancing with my best ballet buddy to original music composed by my husband and original choreography created for us by our teacher from a long distance (in Kazakhstan)!

Here is my story: I started learning ballet at 35 and eight years later am still loving it! I took two years of ballet when I was a kid but switched to modern for a couple of years and then stopped dancing altogether. When my health started to deteriorate in my 30s, I asked myself what would make me feel whole again. It didn’t take long to find the magical answer: “ballet”! Doing ballet at an age when most professional dancers would have retired presents a special kind of challenge–not to mention the large fibroid tumors inside me, which had given me serious impediments in the learning process since hip alignment is so crucial to ballet. Nonetheless, I kept calm and carried on. Now after my operation I am starting all over again as a beginner. I know that technically it will be an uphill battle. But I don’t let age get in the way of my enjoyment. Ballet is my biggest passion in life! I want to keep on dancing for as long as possible.”

And to throw in a little bonus, here is the video of the dance I did with my friend Carrie two years ago at the dance competition. It’s called “The River Nymphs.” Original music composed by Fredix. Original choreography by Nurlan Baibusinov. Enjoy!

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

What’s All the Fuss about that ‘Free People’ Ballet Ad?

Recently, an ad by fashion company Free People has generated a sleuth of attacks from the ballet world regarding the use of a model who apparently has not had proper ballet training.

Free-People-Model“Why the outrage?” Some folks outside of the dance community have asked. To the untrained eye, the model looks totally pretty—slim and flexible—an image that fits that of a ballet dancer. However, it doesn’t take much for a ballet dancer—or a ballet student who has undergone any meaningful training, to be able to tell that this model has had no proper ballet training at all. Her technique is weak and incorrect, and her lines are neither clean nor classical. For trained dancers—and even serious “recreational” ballet students, this is an insult to the art form. Many feel that it makes light of the years and years of training—with blood and sweat, no less—that yield the proper aesthetics of ballet dancing, which this ad is anything but.

Perhaps it would not be so outrageous if the voice-over had not mentioned that she had been dancing since she was three. Granted, in the advertising world, most of what we see is just make-belief. Still, if the marketers were to do a more convincing job, at least they would have made a more careful choice of picking the model among real ballet dancers during the casting process. In fact, a growing number of commercials have employed trained ballet dancers, including some world-renown dancers such as Diana Vishneva, Tamaro Rojo, Polina Semionova, Yuan Yuan Tan and Misty Copeland. Even if their budget is limited, it would not be that difficult or expensive to find a real ballet dancer who would have done the job a million times better.

A main argument against the ad is that having the model dance en pointe posed a serious danger to her as obviously she does not have the required strength to dance properly en pointe. Her ankles are sickled, weak and wobbly. Many of the dancers who expressed their outrage were concerned about the model’s safety.

From a philosophical viewpoint, I think the debate has gotten so heated because dancers are defending their art with their life and passion. They have spent decades training for an art form that demands not only supreme athleticism but perfection that comes from within—an artistry that cannot exist without input from the soul. In my opinion, this is where the world of advertising and marketing diverge from art.

The commercial world has put a strong emphasis on superficial beauty and appeal to consumers through attempts of mood-making. Ballet is not just about external beauty—the costumes, the make-up, the body. Sure, it is about those and so much more. The inner strength, the dedication and tenacity, the expression of human emotions and the transcendence of the soul—these are the qualities that actually move and touch the audience.

My lament over the superficial focus in the commercial world does not stop here. It concerns also how yoga, a spiritual practice that centers around the soul, has been reduced to a physical exercise by adoptees in the Western world. But that’s a discussion that does not belong to this ballet blog and so let me not go there.

P.S.:

Saving grace: Free People was quick enough to have teamed up with Ballet Zaida to do a new series of photo shoot with professional dancers. I think they should simply take down the original ad and product images and replace them with the new ones.

http://blog.freepeople.com/2014/05/ballet-zaida-fp/

http://www.shape.com/blogs/shape-your-life/these-photos-will-make-you-want-be-ballerina-or-dress-one

Related links:

Dancers’ comments on Free People’s Facebook page:
https://www.facebook.com/FreePeople/posts/10154164560790206

A Huffington Post article on the subject:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/16/free-people-ballet_n_5338983.html?utm_hp_ref=arts&ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000027

AdWeek’s article:
http://www.adweek.com/adfreak/trained-dancers-are-completely-appalled-ballet-ad-free-people-clothing-157682

Conversation with a Ballet Kid

Eleanor A couple of years ago, I was taking class at a dance studio where I got to know quite a number of kids.

One day we were rehearsing for a school recital, and I was warming up outside the rented studio by doing some barre exercises while holding onto a bookshelf.

A girl called Eleanor, upon hearing the music I was playing on my mini speaker, came to me and asked what I was doing. Then very quickly she installed herself behind me, holding onto a lower layer of the bookshelf, and tried to copy my exercises. When we came to the rond de jambe exercise, I asked if she had done that before. She said “no.” After doing the right side, we turned around, and I observed that she was already able to pick up all the movements and do them on the left side.

We were both getting sweaty after a while and it was obvious that she was enjoying this warm-up a lot. She said to me, “I think Miss X will be super happy that we come into the studio well-prepared!”

What a pearl she is! Then suddenly, she asked me: “What kind of work do you do?”

“I’m an editor.” I replied.

“Oh, are you not a dancer?”

“No,” said I, with a tiny hint of a smile on the edge of my lips. While a kid may not be able to discern the difference between a professional dancer and an amateur one like me, the innocent question nonetheless represented a kind of flattery in my mind.

“Why not?” she inquired, wide-eyed.

“Well… It’s too late,” I told her, knowing that this was not really a satisfactory answer, neither for her nor for me. But what else could I have said? That I had found my passion too late in my life to be able to develop it into a profession? That my parents had not truly acknowledged my love for dance and encouraged me to pursue it? That academic studies took precedence over every other hobby that I had in my childhood, so that all my artistic dreams fell by the way side? That if I were to live my life all over again, I would make sure I follow my heart and insist on pursuing my artistic dream, no matter how hard it might seem to be?

It was time to go into the studio and start the rehearsal. I watched Eleanor dance the pas de trois in The Nutcracker with a sense of excitement and joy, seeing how she had improved over just a few months’ time, and secretly wishing in my heart, that she would be able to live out her dream and her joy to the fullest—no matter what life brings her.

Musings on RAD Exams

Recently I was chatting with a ballet friend about the Royal Academy of Dance examination. She is going to take part in one very soon. She told me she regretted signing up for it as it was putting major stress on her. I can totally understand how it feels. As an adult with a full schedule, preparing for an RAD major exam means extra work after work/in the weekends, and a lot of emotional pressure related to performance expectations.

Years ago when I first started learning ballet, I was constantly being talked into taking exams. But after seven years I still have not found the urge or the allure to participate. I doubt that I ever will. I did take classes that are designed to prepare students for such exams, but mainly because those classes were suitable for my technical level at the time. The old syllabus used to bore me to no end. However, since RAD has revised its syllabi and improved its musical choices, I find the content for the major exams—exams designed for those aspiring to become professionals—to be much more interesting. I actually took the Intermediate course for several months and really enjoyed the learning process. Here is me practicing in a rented studio (disclaimer: the movements are not entirely correct according to the syllabus!):

Generally speaking, I prefer to take “free classes,” a colloquial term here in Hong Kong meaning classes that don’t follow any exam syllabus. (In Hong Kong, many adult students take RAD classes—usually along with children—because there simply aren’t that many studios that offer “free classes” due to the small number of adult students. ) As I feel that my day-time job alone demands enough from me in terms of submitting a “report card,” I would prefer to keep my ballet hobby free from any judgment. I want to keep it sort of demand-free. The only true demand would be my own quest to improve. Of course, I love corrections and feedback from the teachers. I don’t regard those as “demands.” They are part of the learning process.

Some of my friends feel that they need the goal of taking an exam to motivate them, to keep them going to class and to do better. Others do have a practical reason for taking RAD exams—they aim at reaching a level that would allow them to become a ballet teacher. I have so much respect for those adult students who eventually got certified as teachers.

To my friend, who expressed regret in her decision—which somehow drove the joy out of her ballet experience—my advice is, just go for it as if performing for an audience, and don’t think about the end results, the “marks” and the “grade.” Enjoy the dancing itself!

As for myself, I don’t really need any extrinsic motivation to keep going (can’t wait for my body to completely heal from my surgery and get back to the classroom). The only thing that drives me is my insatiable passion for ballet—for the extreme beauty of its form, for the potential to express emotions through incredibly challenging movements, and for the never-ending desire for perfection.