Ballets by Marius Petipa

Ladies of the Lake

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 August, 2011, 12:00am

Jin Yao is sitting on the dance floor at the back of rehearsal studio GR2, stretching her long, lean limbs. She is preparing to bring the ill-fated Swan Queen to life in the Cultural Centre's Grand Theatre, in a rehearsal session ahead of the Hong Kong Ballet (HKB) production of Swan Lake.

The Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky-scored ballet will open on Friday, a few short months after Black Swan, the Oscar-nominated American film that revolves around a production of Swan Lake by a prestigious New York company, faded from the city's cinema screens.

'It's nothing like the film,' says HKB's principal dancer, referring to how her life differs from those of the ballerinas portrayed in Darren Aronofsky's psychological thriller. The film centres on Natalie Portman's character, Nina, whose schizophrenia is exacerbated by her portrayal of both the pure Swan Queen, Odette, and the evil Black Swan, Odile, and leads at one point to her believing that she is growing her own black feathers.

'I very much disliked the film. I can understand drama but the emotions, the kind of competition among dancers and even the controlling mother are completely exaggerated,' Jin says. 'The director doesn't seem to know much about the ballet world.

'It has revived people's enthusiasm in ballet, and we do get a lot more attention,' she concedes (there are only a few single seats left for HKB's five performances). 'But I need to set the record straight.'

It is a hot Saturday morning, but Jin is wrapped in layers of clothing - a trick dancers use to keep their body warm, to help prevent injury. Next to the skin she is wearing a baby blue leotard, one of about 30 she owns. ('I usually bring three sets to work. There's a lot of washing to do.') Over that she has on a grey, figure-hugging see-through top, home-made from a pair of worn-out tights. As an outer layer, she is wearing a thick grey hooded zipped-up cardigan. Her legs are sheathed in a pair of white tights but, apparently, they do not afford enough warmth; she also has on a pair of thigh-high black leg warmers. And, of course, she's wearing a white pancake tutu and pointe shoes with ribbons tied around her ankles.

Jin and her colleagues rehearse from 10am to 6pm, with a one-hour lunch break. On Saturday, they do a half day.

Behind Jin, the 24 members of the corps de ballet are rehearsing the final act, following the direction of HKB's Swedish artistic director, Madeleine Onne, who joined the government-funded group in 2009.

'Today's rehearsal focuses mostly on the corps de ballet, about their movements, their positions and their steps,' explains the Putonghua-speaking Jin.

The four-act ballet, which was first performed in 1877 at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, tells the tragic love story of Prince Siegfried and Odette, a princess who is under a spell cast by the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart. Odette and her companions are forced to remain as swans during the day and can only return to human form at night. The spell can only be broken by the true love of a man. When Rothbart discovers Siegfried's love for Odette, he arranges for the evil Odile to seduce the prince. Tragedy ensues.

Like most ballet companies that take on Swan Lake, HKB is performing the revival that was choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov and premiered in 1895 in St Petersburg. It is an ensemble production, performed by a large cast.

'Dancers are very normal, and we have to support each other,' says Jin.

In room GR2, there's no abusive ballet director screaming, 'Attack it!' repeatedly at the dancers, as Vincent Cassel's character does in Black Swan. There's only repeated drilling, and Onne reassuring her 'kids' with a 'Great' or a 'Well done'.

'They are friendly. There's no fuss. And they are disciplined - if they are sick, they come back the next day,' says Onne.

It's not the first time 31-year-old Jin has played Odette/Odile. Since joining the National Ballet of China upon graduation from the Beijing Dance Academy in 1997, the Jilin native has been involved in a number of major productions, from The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker to Cinderella and The Merry Widow. In 2009, she starred in an earlier HKB production of Swan Lake, having been in productions of the opera in 2004 and 2007.

'It's the show that all ballerinas look forward to the most, but it is also the most intimidating,' says Jin. The physical challenge is exceptional - there is a lot of pointe work - including the famous 32 continuous single fouettes that make up the coda of the Black Swan pas de deux - which explains why a dancer attempting this role wears out more than the average five pairs of pointe shoes a month.

The Black Swan is an evil, voluptuous woman who exists in the story to rip the enchanted Odette's world apart, steal the prince from her and stop her from returning to human form.

'In order to demonstrate this, her moves are sharp,' Jin says. 'Compared with the vulnerable and innocent White Swan, Black Swan is relatively easy to handle.'

Is that because she is tough?

'Probably. Fast and powerful steps are closer to my nature. But for gentleness and softness, it needs a bit of concentration.'

Having mastered the moves, Jin had to work on her acting, and she is much more confident this time around.

'When I was younger, I enjoyed the challenges from the technical side of a performance, like the fouettes and grand jete. But as I become more mature, I enjoy getting deep inside a character.

'Everyone has a vulnerable side as well as moments when they want to show off their pride. And as an artist you exaggerate these two distinctive sides, which can be found in the same person,' says Jin, of the relationship between, and her portrayal of, Odette and Odile. 'People say that acting is about letting go of yourself, but at the end of the day, you are still what you are, and when you act you just take a different perspective in looking at yourself.'

Being intimate with the music has helped. Jin has listened to Tchaikovsky's score innumerable times.

'The score is the soul of the dance,' says Jin, who played piano when she was growing up. 'If I know the music inside out, it's a lot easier for me to demonstrate the depth of the character. A dance artist must have a very good foundation in music.'

Onne says: '[Jin] is at the peak of her career, and this peak can last anywhere between five and 10 years. It's up to her.

'Principal dancers have a longer career compared to corps de ballet dancers.' And even though Jin has played this dual role before, this time 'things will be different. She thinks about the timing, the feeling and it's different with a new partner.'

This time, Siegfried will be performed by Robert Curran, from the Australian Ballet.

Of all the partners she has danced with, Jin admits she fell for one, when she was on the mainland.

'It's very common to see [romantically involved] couples dancing together overseas, because they know each other very well,' Jin says. 'There's only a small circle in the dance world. We saw each other everyday ...'

What about now? She shakes her head: 'I want to focus on dancing. I only go home after work. I don't even have the energy to cook.'

It is time for Odette to emerge from the back of the stage, having learned her prince has betrayed their oath. Surrounded by dancers, a 'sad' Jin stands en pointe in the middle of the rehearsal room, taking tiny steps, as if a frightened swan looking for consolation. Odette is alive, even if she is wearing a grey cardigan and thigh-high black leg warmers.

Years of training in ballet have given the dancer a lean figure - she is 168cm tall and weighs 47kg.

'The worst was when I was 17 or 18, I weighed 120 pounds [54.5kg]. I put on weight even from drinking water. I was this little round person,' Jin laughs.

Now 'she has a great body', says Onne. Jin has almost no fat and powerful muscles, the result of working out every day rather than dieting.

'When we are rehearsing, we need a lot of energy, and so we eat a lot. When we dance, we don't put on weight. It is during the holidays that we have to be more cautious. It can't be oily,' Jin says. 'I eat anything. I love spicy hotpot. But I can't [get] too full otherwise it feels horrible to dance.'

While Jin is demonstrating her skill, soloist Zhang Siyuan is working on her technique in the smaller GR3 studio. The experienced principal dancer will be the star of the opening night and one other performance but Zhang will dance Odette/Odile in two of the shows. (A fifth show will feature Wu Feifei and Ye Feifei, Liaoning dancers who will reprise their roles from the 2009 production as Odette and Odile, respectively.)

Zhang, also a graduate of the Beijing Dance Academy and a former member of the National Ballet of China, joined HKB last October. Although only 22 years old, she has performed in a number of major productions, but this will be the first time she has tackled Swan Lake.

'The pressure is unprecedented,' Zhang says. 'It is the first time ever for me to perform the dual roles of one of my favourite ballets. It's like a dream come true.

'It's a great challenge for every ballerina. The characters of Odette/ Odile contrast with each other and one needs a great deal of effort in order to master the technique and intrinsic personality of both characters. Every time I go home from work I try to watch videos performed by famous dancers around the world, to learn how they interpret Odette/ Odile. I take the pressure as my motivation to become a better dancer.'

Zhang says she looks up to Jin: 'I learn a lot even from watching her rehearse. Her determination and the way she perfects her performance is a model for every dancer.'

Both of Jin's parents were dancers when Jiang Qing, the last of Mao Zedong's four wives, held sway over the mainland's performers. Jiang supervised the 'revolutionary ballet' and Jin's parents danced the communist repertoire, including The Red Detachment of Women. They went through a rough time, says Jin, exhausted by non-stop drilling in not just dance, but also singing - and that nearly cost their daughter her chance.

'I was quite bright at school. They wanted me to study and do trade or finance,' says Jin.

Nevertheless, students of her parents, who had become dance teachers, noticed the young Jin's physique and pushed for reconsideration. Jin says students even posted dance academy registration forms to her home, but her parents hid them. Her mother, though, was becoming convinced of her daughter's talent - Jin could execute the most complicated moves on her own after having watched her mother's students rehearsing.

'One day, when I was nine years old, I accidentally discovered those registration forms my parents had been hiding from me,' Jin recalls. 'I understood they didn't want me to follow their rough path, but I tried to convince my mother that I wanted to give it a try ... It was the last chance. If I didn't enrol in a dance academy at that time, it would've been the end of it.'

Her mother finally gave in, agreeing that no matter which path her daughter chose, she would have to work extremely hard in order to succeed. She took Jin to the capital, to take part in national recruitment trials hosted by the Beijing Dance Academy, without her father's approval. Jin took a number of tests - not just physical but also examinations on arts subjects - competing with more than 1,000 children from all over the country.

'Every year the Beijing Dance Academy only admits a small class, and at the time they only took 14 boys and 14 girls,' Jin says.

After almost a month in Beijing, Jin and her mother were given good news. Having passed, she chose ballet as a discipline because, her mother said, that would open doors to the world. Jin's father finally came around to the idea his daughter was going to be a dancer, but only because she was to be educated by the best of the best in the country.

In 2003, six years after joining the National Ballet of China, Jin was promoted to principal dancer. The Chinese Ministry of Culture conferred on her the title of National Class One Performer the same year.

She has won a number of other accolades, including the gold medal at the Varna International Ballet Competition in 2002. She joined HKB as senior soloist in 2004 and, within just one year, she had been promoted to principal dancer. In 2007, she was awarded the Hong Kong Dance Award by the Hong Kong Dance Alliance, and this year she was presented the award for best artist (dance) by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council.

Jin thinks she will continue performing until she's 35. But then what?

'I have ideas, perhaps run my own dance school,' she smiles.

She does not deny that she probably inherited the educational drive from her parents, who have just closed their own dance schools in Jilin and will soon move to Shenzhen, where many family members live. Weekend trips across the border have become routine for Jin.

Before she retires from the stage, though, she hopes to perform in a ballet she has not done before, perhaps John Cranko's Onegin.

Although they are often a hard sell, HKB is determined to bring in new contemporary productions. In the coming season, the company will stage Moments in Time, a triple-bill of three original works created for the dance group, alongside classical box-office favourites. Onne says the group must keep doing original pieces, despite their lack of appeal, 'otherwise we will become a museum, and I don't think the government wants us to become a museum after spending so much money on us'.

THE SATURDAY MORNING rehearsal has come to an end. Onne thanks the dancers and dismisses the company. Jin quickly packs her bag and puts on sporty trousers and a pair of big warm boots. She is getting ready for Shenzhen.

'You can eat well, get facials and massages done,' says Jin, who gets excited talking about what she has been waiting for all week. 'They have food that meets my Dongbei taste. It's very relaxing. I feel that the only way to relax is to get out of Hong Kong.'

And that, perhaps, is how Jin prevents her own black feathers from sprouting.