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!”

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Giselle… Love’s Eternal Tragedy

Giselle

Two nights ago I attended a performance of Giselle at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. It was part of the 42nd Hong Kong Arts Festival. The touring company was Milan’s La Scala Theatre Ballet and the leading roles were danced by Svetlana Zakharova and David Hallberg, two of the world’s top dancers today.

Act I was delightful in the beginning and absolutely captivating at the end thanks to the marvelous performance of Zakharova and Hallberg, but the peasant dances made me yawn and wish I had a remote control to fast forward to where the two stars would appear again!

While Zakharova’s slim, tall and bony physique and generally cool facial expressions may not lend herself to be that perfect sweet peasant girl, I was quite satisfied about her role-play. She did manage to convince me of being an innocent, happy-go-lucky girl who experienced love for the first time. Her super archy feet are very expressive. Her pale and frail body was actually ideal for highlighting the part of the story line where she fell ill from her heart condition after exhausting herself from dancing.

It was the mad scene that made me cry. Tears welled up so much that my vision was blurred. When Giselle lost her mind, it brought forth a universal theme of love’s betrayal, something that so many of us have experienced or witnessed. Zakharova’s acting in this scene was superb. I like how her feet—not just her face—so sensitively expressed her melancholy. She did not go into full-scale hysteria when interpreting this scene, like in some other versions I have seen. Her descend into death was a gradual loss of senses and increase of agony. This was what made her emotions so real, and what provoked that heart-wrenching cry from me.

Hallberg was beautiful and charming as he always is–his physical appearance just perfect for the role of the nobility Albrecht. His performance was impeccable.

The role of Giselle’s mother was rather weak, compared with the ABT (recorded) version I have seen, in which she played more of a controlling matriarch, chastising Giselle and trying all she could—with physical rigor—to separate the young couple who had just fallen in love.

The soloists and corps de ballet from La Scala gave a very disappointing performance. Their jumps were heavy and extension quite poor. Luckily in the first act they were peasants, so despite the poor techniques, it did not feel so jarring. It was in the second act that these flaws really showed. As willies, or ghosts of the forest, their pointe shoes were noisy, their landings were heavy, the port de bras not so graceful, and their formation dances sometimes felt like zombie dances. As a friend of mine said, the company had chosen its supplemental corps on this tour, probably because it did not take Hong Kong seriously. While Nicoletta Manni, who played Myrtha, Queen of the Willis, generally danced beautifully and did not make too many faults in her performance, a good number of her jumps just felt like big thumps on the floor. Her face was not stern enough as the evil queen of the ghosts, and I feel that a taller dancer would be more suitable for this role.

Svetlana Zakharova as Giselle

By contrast, the two stars’ performance in Act 2 was the highlight of the night. I “ate up” every movement, every phrase, every gesture and facial expression, at times hard, as my vision was blurred again by my tears. Zakharova was perfect for the role as a ghost thanks to her physique and her melancholic facial expressions. Hallberg’s expression of remorse and his powerful yet graceful jumps were a delight to watch. I feel a lot of stage chemistry between them in this act. The archetypal ideal of love that transcends all human faults, including betrayal and jealousy, was so vividly portrayed. It was all very emotionally touching, and utterly devastating that the two lovers could not consummate their love due to the circumstances in “real life.” This is the eternal tragedy of love, a recurring theme in countless artistic and literary works. It makes me question: Are we condemned in this human condition forever and ever?

Perhaps that “living-happily-ever-after” ending of fairy tales are just what it is–fairy tales. That eternal longing for unattainable love is perhaps what makes love as a concept so romantic and tragic at the same time.