Opera ballet

A Chinese dancer breaks down cultural barriers at the Paris Opera Ballet

HONG KONG — When it opened its season late last month, the Paris Opera Ballet included the first Chinese dancer to be hired in its 346-year history.

Lam Chun-wing, 19, from a working-class Hong Kong suburb, is an unlikely addition to the world’s oldest ballet company, a state institution steeped in French tradition. He has already danced in George Balanchine’s ‘Theme and Variations’, as well as a work by Jerome Robbins, in a series that ended on Sunday. In November and December, Mr. Lam will perform in “La Bayadère” by Rudolf Nureyev.

Mr. Lam’s entry into the Paris Opera Ballet is part of a gradual change within the state-funded company, where more than 90% of the dancers are French. He grew up in a small apartment in Hong Kong with five parents and started taking dance lessons at the age of 7 at a small branch of a chain of schools run by Jean M. Wong, the leading lady local ballet teachers. At an annual event held just for top students, Ms Wong quickly noticed that the boy had both talent and the ideal proportions of a ballet dancer.

“Everything about him is very precise,” said Ms Wong, who has been teaching for 55 years. “And he’s so musical – he ends every step exactly on note.” She was so impressed that she sent a DVD of Mr. Lam’s dance to the Paris Opera School of Dance in 2011. That same year, at age 14, he became the first Chinese dancer to be admitted to the academy.

Mr. Lam had his chance last December, when the Paris Opera Ballet needed a last-minute replacement for a production of Jean-Guillaume Bart’s “La Source.” He danced a technically difficult scene in which male dancers portray otherworldly creatures, after some lead dancers and their backups were injured. At the time, Mr. Lam was still a student and had not yet been hired by the company.

Nevertheless, he made his professional debut at the ornate Palais Garnier – painted blue, as an understudy for an elf. After filling in for 23 shows, he received a backstage thank you directly from Benjamin Millepied, the Paris Opera’s dance director.

“He has a very refined technique – he’s quick and fit,” Millepied said in a phone interview, adding that Mr Lam was just one of three male dancers the company has hired this year. year. “He has great proportions. And after that trial, we knew it would be great for the company.

Mr Millepied spoke of a “cultural shift” at the ballet – a shift that reflected its international outlook and “American influences”. Mr. Millepied, originally from Bordeaux, grew up partly in Senegal and danced with the New York City Ballet for more than a decade. He became a Hollywood name when he choreographed “Black Swan”, where he met and married the film’s star, Natalie Portman.

“We want more diversity at the Paris Opera,” Millepied said. “We want a 21st century business that truly feels like the community.” He added that he wanted to see more international dancers both in the company and in his school.

Back in Hong Kong in August, Mr. Lam was the star attraction at the Jean M. Wong School’s 55th anniversary gala, where he danced the role of a dashing, comedic Basilio in “Don Quixote.”

He was clearly the hometown hero in the student show genre where 5-year-olds trotted around village stages in tutus. Pamphlets distributed at the Hong Kong Cultural Center showed him flying through the air, with the title “He Made History!” The first Chinese to join the Paris Opera Ballet.

Credit…Jean M. Wong Ballet School

After the show, Mr. Lam shyly accepted congratulations from amazed students backstage. A slightly built teenager in shorts and a backpack, he then excused himself and found his parents, sister, aunt, uncle and cousin waiting in the hall. His parents, a teacher and lift repairman, did not have the chance to see their son dance in Paris.

Mr Lam said he decided to become a professional dancer when he was 11. But he faced several obstacles in Hong Kong, including the fact that he couldn’t find a good male ballet teacher. The best he could do was cross the border into mainland China to work with a teacher from the Guangzhou Ballet School during school vacations.

“It’s a totally different formation,” Ms Wong said of the male dancers. “They need to jump more. They need to make more turns. They must learn the pas de deux. By the time Chun-wing was 13, he was really in a hurry to go overseas.

She started lobbying for him. She took her audition DVD to the Royal Ballet School in London, but it missed the minimum age requirement by a week. He received a scholarship to attend his summer school, but still lacked a place to study full-time.

Another DVD is sent to the Paris Opera Ballet, where he is invited for a private audition. Almost as soon as they received the notice, the ballet teacher flew with his protege to Paris. They went sightseeing on the first day, stopping to gaze at the elaborate facades of the Paris Opera residences. On the second day, they traveled in nervous silence to the Paris Opera School of Dance in Nanterre, a suburb west of the city.

Mr. Lam was taken away, and Ms. Wong waited in the hall for two hours. Finally, Élisabeth Platel, the legendary prima ballerina who runs the school, appears and declares: “This boy has talent.

“My heart exploded,” Ms Wong said.

The next challenge was to convince Mr. Lam’s family to let him settle in France. Children in Hong Kong — a city with exorbitant house prices and little social safety net — are typically pushed into reliable, traditional careers.

“He has very supportive parents,” Ms Wong said, “especially since he comes from a Chinese family with only one son.”

When Mr. Lam moved to the Ballet School’s boarding house at age 14, he spoke almost no French. There were few foreigners among the 130 students. There was only one other boy from abroad, a Ukrainian who did not reach the second grade.

“I was so homesick,” Mr Lam said. “Sometimes at night I thought, ‘What am I doing here? (One day, it is presumed, Mr. Lam will have a publicist.)

In September, Mr. Lam began working as a quadrille, at the first rung of the corps de ballet ladder. He blushes when asked if he is proud of himself.

“Of course, I’m happy. But most of the time I’m just relieved,” he said. “I’m worried – basically I’ve been worried since I was 13. I was worried that I wasn’t good enough. I was afraid of not being able to go abroad. He stopped himself. “Now, at least, here I am.”