As Hong Kong Ballet corps member Xia Jun rehearses his solo from Krzysztof Pastor's In Light and Shadow, a distinct Eastern flavor of movement exudes from the suppleness of his port de bras and the articulation of his à la seconde extension. The ballet master calls out corrections in Mandarin, and Swedish-born artistic director Madeleine Onne offers critiques in English.
The company, just hours away from its March debut at The Joyce Theater in New York City, is a reflection of the international diversity found in the cosmopolitan city of Hong Kong. In addition to full-length classical ballets, Onne—who was the artistic director of the Royal Swedish Ballet prior to heading Hong Kong Ballet—has brought in more Balanchine repertoire and contemporary works from Europe, as well as new commissions by Chinese choreographers. From its repertoire to its roster, Hong Kong Ballet is a mix of East and West. “The majority of the company is Chinese," says Onne, “but I like to spice it up with Western dancers, too."
Those hoping to dance abroad may not immediately think to launch their career in Asia. But corps de ballet member Nicole Assaad and coryphée Jonathan Spigner are two Americans thriving at Hong Kong Ballet.
“My plan was to dance in Europe—that was my dream," says Spigner, who joined the company in 2010. But when HKB offered him a corps contract at the Monaco Dance Forum, he was impressed. “We work on a 12-month contract, so I feel more secure," he says. “A lot of my friends in the U.S. have six- or eight-month contracts and have to guest or freelance in between."
Assaad was a student at the Gelsey Kirkland Academy when she submitted an audition video to HKB last year. She'd never been out of the U.S. before, but after thoroughly researching Hong Kong and the company, she felt safe starting her career abroad. “I thought, Why not?" she says, noting that the company's expansive repertoire was a big draw. “I gave my parents a huge speech about what a great opportunity it is—I had to warm them up to the idea."
Though neither Assaad nor Spigner speak Mandarin or Cantonese, they don't feel the language barrier affects their growth. English is a common second language in Hong Kong, and the Chinese people are happy to converse with foreigners in English. “Being a dancer is fantastic because you don't fully get how well you understand body language until you're thrown into a mix of people where there are all sorts of languages," says Spigner.
“Don't underestimate what the world can offer," he continues. “We are much more connected now, East to West."
“Being in a new company and new country is like flipping a new page. You learn from it and move forward."
“Culturally, how the dancers here think and work is very different from the West. You learn to respect that and take a little bit for yourself."
All photos by Kyle Froman, for Pointe
"I love the diversity and energy of Hong Kong," says Assaad, center, in the green leotard.
When choosing a pre-professional program, many dancers focus on the number of hours they’ll spend training in the studio. But technique is only one ingredient in the recipe for making a professional dancer. To produce well-rounded artists, many ballet schools are expanding their curriculums to include classes in dance history, science, stagecraft and career counseling. “The focus so much now is on technique, but I think it’s important for us to go back and develop ourselves as artists and people,” says Colorado Ballet Academy director Valerie Madonia. The broader knowledge these supplemental classes bring makes dancers more marketable as professionals, and helps distinguish a good dancer from a great artist.
Dance History and Culture
Whether you study Vaganova or Cecchetti technique, understanding ballet’s roots and how the art evolved is important to the development of educated, worldly dancers. Madonia, seeing a big hole in the way dancers are trained, decided to spend an hour out of the studio each week exposing her students to different perspectives of dance and the world. “There is so little time in the studio for dancers to really look at the history and meaning behind the work they are doing,” she says.
Madonia brought in Julie Van Camp, a retired California State University, Long Beach, philosophy professor, to give students a sampler of dance aesthetics. When Colorado Ballet performed Concerto Barocco last season, Van Camp used the ballet as a case study for learning about dance criticism and aesthetic theories. Madonia and Van Camp agree that students need to practice thinking about their art form from different dimensions in order to understand the world they are functioning in.
Understanding ballet’s beginnings, as well as the cultural and political influences that have affected it throughout the centuries, also helps to inform artistry. For instance, interactive dance history classes offered at Miami City Ballet School allow students to practice movements from different historical periods. They learn about how Louis XIV’s stance shown in paintings is an early third position, and how ballet’s aesthetic lines changed as skirts shortened in order to show off intricate footwork. “For them to understand why they do what they do and where it came from helps with technical ability,” says MCBS school director Darleen Callaghan.
Students interested in choreographing or directing benefit from knowing the technical aspects of putting on a production, running rehearsals and managing a company. But rarely do they get hands-on opportunities to learn these skills. Enrichment courses designed to take dancers behind the scenes can help bridge that gap.
In Introduction to Stagecraft and Design at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC, dancers learn about costumes, lighting and sound designs from Noel Greer, a professional stagehand who works in many DC-area theaters. “When students start choreographing, we find that they don’t know how to light a stage and how to communicate with the lighting designer,” says Kirov Academy artistic director Adrienne Dellas Thornton. The class allows them to practice putting on productions in the academy’s theater. “You see them start to look at the theater differently,” she says.
Dance Science and Nutrition
Since a dancer’s body is her instrument, knowing how it functions and how to take care of it can help maximize performance and prevent injury. Dance science courses give students the necessary tools for a healthy career.
In the nutrition lectures offered at MCBS, dancers learn how to fuel their bodies and grocery shop on a budget. “Their diet and how they are supporting their bodies is as important as their technical training,” says Callaghan, especially since many pre-professional students are living away from home for the first time and learning to cook for themselves. Sometimes MCB principal dancers talk to the students about how they eat to sustain their energy for rehearsals and performances. “It sits in their minds a little better when they hear it from one of the principals than if they hear it from me or their moms,” says Callaghan.
At the Kirov Academy, pre-professional students are required to take a Dance Science and Principles of Movement class. Taught by George Washington University professor Irina Wunder, students learn to visualize the inner workings of the muscles and how they create movement. “Understanding the actual source of movement in the body helps them comprehend how their instruments work and gain an even greater respect for their art,” says Thornton.
While getting a job is a pre-professional dancer’s ultimate goal, technique class doesn’t prepare them for the stress that comes with auditioning, signing contracts and moving to a new city. That’s where career-oriented classes come in. For instance, at MCBS, graduating students learn how to write resumés and cover letters, as well as research companies around the world. “It was a comfort to know that if it didn’t work out at Miami, I’d have a package that I can send out to other companies,” says MCB corps member Ellen Grocki, a graduate of the school.
In career counseling classes at the Kirov Academy, dancers learn about a variety of topics related to professional life, including how unions work, how to research housing and how to come up with a budget. “It gave me an idea of what to expect when I made the transition from student to professional,” says alumna Megan Amanda Ehrlich, who danced at San Francisco Ballet.
And that added knowledge ultimately makes dancers more marketable. “The more you know as a dancer,” says Madonia, “the more you have to offer as an artist.”
“Early in my career, I had a teacher who told me to exaggerate my movement like a person over-articulating her speech. As he gave me the correction, he enunciated dramatically and used his face and huge hand gestures to make his point. He told me to spell out each individual step with that same energy and attention to detail. I think about his correction all the time, and I try to approach my movement with that kind of specificity.” —Virginia Pilgrim Ramey, Ballet Memphis