Interview: Young Chinese ballet performer dances his dream in Houston
HOUSTON, April 7 (Xinhua) — If the world of dance has taught Chun Wai Chan one thing, it's the value of following his dreams.
"I tell aspiring dancers to love what you do – and then do it," Chan said in an interview with Xinhua recently, before going to Minneapolis in the U.S. state of Minnesota for Houston Ballet's touring production of Swan Lake.
In the April 7-8 performances, he'll dance the lead male role of Prince Siegfried.
Chan, 25, recently was promoted to principal dancer for Houston Ballet, one of America's five largest dance companies. "Dreams do come true," he said. "Becoming a principal dancer was my dream."
That dream began at age 12 when he joined Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, a Chinese national university based in China's southern Guangdong Province, where he was born.
"Though Houston Ballet is well-known in China, I wasn't dreaming specifically of being a principal for Houston Ballet, but somewhere," he said.
His parents had wanted him to study in college and find a job in a bank or at a big company, Chan said. Yet his focus pirouetted to dance.
In 2010, Chan entered Switzerland's Prix de Lausanne competition. After finishing as a finalist, he received a full scholarship offer from Houston Ballet Academy to study with its second company, HBII.
"It's such a good school," he said. "It changed my whole life."
Studying for two years, he learned to move his body
"in a contemporary way, not just a classical way." Then he had "the honor" to join the Corps de Ballet as an apprentice.
Chan rose quickly in the company, being promoted to demi soloist in 2015 and to first soloist in June 2017.
To his surprise, at year's end he was promoted again: to principal dancer. Among its 59 dancers, Houston Ballet has five male and five female principals.
"It was unbelievable," Chan said. "I didn't expect to be promoted again after six months. I was very excited."
He'd already had spotlights in a variety of major roles, including the Nutcracker Prince in The Nutcracker, choreographed by former Houston Ballet artistic director Ben Stevenson, who often recruited in China.
For current artistic director Stanton Welch, Chan first danced as a principal in a mixed repertoire program of contemporary dances called Rock, Roll and Tutus.
"I love contemporary dance," he said. "As a Chinese classical dancer, we don't focus much on contemporary. We just think, 'Oh, classical is good enough.' But HBII increased my skill for contemporary dancing and acting, and I love it."
He also loves Houston, America's fourth largest city. A melting pot for newcomers, it's been hailed by the New York Times as America's most racially and ethnically diverse city.
He's not Houston's first high-profile Chinese performer. From 2002-2011, China's Yao Ming led the Houston Rockets basketball team, which now has a rising young player from China, Zhou Qi.
Meanwhile, another Chinese dancer, who's 18, is studying in Houston Ballet's academy "and is on my journey," Chan said.
While he credits Welch for "believing in me and giving me opportunities," Chan also credits Houston Ballet as an institution. "It's a company that doesn't have a racial problem," he said. "As long as you are good, you are talented and you work hard, you get a chance."
In a nomadic profession, Chan feels "very lucky to be here for so long. Everyone works so hard. It's been a great experience."
He spends seven hours daily training or rehearsing and works out at a gym on weekends. "I am very focused on ballet."
But he doesn't only work. "With friends I play backgammon and basketball and do karaoke," Chan said. "I'm very active."
Like so many of his generation around the world, he also has connections via social media. You might say Chan dances up a storm on Instagram, with more than 30,000 followers, and his YouTube channel, with more than 3,500 subscribers.
Named "Chunner Studio," it hosts a variety of how-to videos on dancing and exercising, including "Hamstring and Upper Body Exercises" and "Don't Jump, Fly!"
"The YouTube videos are to help people," said Chan, who also teaches dance at Houston studios. "I am so lucky that I'd feel guilty not sharing my gift. I want to give back without charging anything. That's meaningful and significant for me."
But it's Instagram that provides "the most communication with my followers around the world, so I can feel close to them."
He's also involved with Chinese video editing app Meipai. "That's a platform for my Chinese social media," Chan said. "I post videos and have 350,000 followers to watch, including my parents. I want to share my journey with my family and friends in China and everywhere."
Chan goes home twice yearly, and his parents have visited Houston. "But they've only seen me dance while I was doing corps work," he said.
To have them see him dance as a principal is another dream.
"I want so much to perform for my family," Chan said. "I'm not sure when that will happen. But I always try to make my dreams come true, so I know this one will."