Chinese girl studies at the Bolshoi Ballet

Josephine Cheung conquered the odds, and her mother's opposition, to study at the Bolshoi, writesVanessa Yung

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 August, 2012, 6:25pm

When Josephine Cheung Ching-nga checked her e-mail on the bus coming home from dance class two years ago, she almost screamed with excitement.

At 15, she had been accepted by Russia's prestigious Bolshoi Ballet Academy. Years of diligent practice, often at odds with her parents' wishes, had paid off and her dream had come true. She had become one of the first two Chinese students to be admitted to the academy.

Her passion for dance began at the age of three, when she asked for lessons after becoming fascinated with pictures of ballerinas.

"Dancing allows me to leave everything behind. It's as if I've entered another world - one without pressure, where I belong. It cheers me up. I can express my feelings - be it happiness or pain - through dancing," says the 18-year-old, who is back in Hong Kong for the summer.

Josephine started lessons at the Jean M. Wong School of Ballet and worked her way up to the class for elite students. As a young child, she performed at hotels over Christmas and in New Year parades. She often practised seven days a week, even though she still had to study for her school subjects. Josephine says she always had high expectations, and although there were times when she was frustrated and angry, she has never thought of giving it up.

But her mother, Heidi Ma Wan-shan, had other ideas. She hoped her daughter would study hard and lead a more stable life.

"She was at Maryknoll Convent School when she was young and I expected her to focus on her studies," Ma says. "I never left her education to a tutor. With me guiding her, she achieved very good results. But whenever I wasn't keeping an eye on her she was dancing."

They would argue, with mother telling daughter to skip a few dance classes at exam time.

Ma once forced her daughter to stay home to revise for her mid-term exams but her daughter locked herself in her room and cried.

She was 12 when the notion of becoming a professional ballet dancer first hit her. The tales of older dancers at Jean M. Wong about attending overseas dance schools fired her desire to explore the world of dancing away from her comfort zone.

By Form Four, Josephine decided that she was ready to leave school to pursue her dream, and told her mother. But Ma was firmly against the idea.

The next day she wrote her mother a letter to try to win her over, along with a list of schools she would like to attend.

"I was touched. She had done so much research," Ma says. "She knew I would rather she go to university so she included a list of professional ballet schools - with and without academic studies - that she wanted to attend, and ranked them. I was so moved by her sincerity and the effort she put into it; there aren't many children who are so determined."

Ma discussed the matter with her husband, who is even more conservative, and the couple concluded that Josephine would never forgive them if they refused to let her go.

Josephine started sending out application letters, along with a long video audition with all the specific requirements each school expected. She received offers from most of the schools.

Ma admits she still felt half-hearted and didn't help her daughter much with the application process. But she gave in when she begged to be allowed to attend an audition at the Royal School of Ballet in London, even though it was a month before her public exams. When the offer from the Bolshoi arrived, Ma knew there would be no stopping her.

Now entering her third year at the Bolshoi, Josephine is pleased with her progress, which she puts down to the more rigorous learning environment under her Russian teachers. The three-year diploma course also requires students to learn Russian and various academic subjects, including the history of ballet, theatre, art and literature.

"The whole day is dedicated to dancing - even free time in between lessons gives us the opportunity to think and practise what the teachers have taught and the corrections they have given us," Josephine says. "In Hong Kong, we finished dancing then went home. There was no time to digest what was being taught."

Josephine's decision to turn down offers from schools such as the Royal School of Ballet was further vindicated when she learned she was one of 10 girls - including six Russian, one French, an American and a Japanese girl - handpicked by the academy's director, Marina Leonova, to take her class.

"It's such an honour to be graduating from the director's class," she says. "I was overwhelmed when I first found out that she would be teaching me.

"The super famous Natalia Osipova, who graduated from the academy and later joined the Bolshoi Ballet, was also coached by the director. She graduated from what was to have been the director's last class. But there is a Russian girl in my class who's also considered an upcoming star, and that prompted the director to continue teaching. I am really lucky."

Josephine says the joy she gets from learning ballet at the Bolshoi outweighs the language barrier, cultural differences and poor living conditions. Her mother was aghast when she saw the dormitories, with their shaky bunk beds, dirty mattresses and awful food. Her daughter shrugged it off with a laugh.

"I didn't go there to enjoy life," she says. "The conditions are way better than I expected. I've come up with a range of microwave recipes. I could live on cucumber, as we have strict weight requirements anyway. Those who are overweight are warned and risk being expelled."

After a shaky start with the locals, Josephine now can communicate in Russian and has adapted to the culture. She has also learned to shower quickly because the bathroom usually smells of the vomit of anorexic girls.

"She never grumbles or says she wants to pull out," Ma says. "She's told us she may not be able to spend the holiday with us next year as she will be busy going to auditions with different companies. I'm not very worried about her now - she's independent. She knew it may not be a very well-paid or stable career, but it's her dream and she tries hard to pursue it. I respect her for that."

Josephine hasn't spent her summer holiday in Hong Kong relaxing, either. She has been practising for her performance in the Stars of Tomorrow gala and joined the Asian Grand Prix, an international ballet competition.

She will return to Moscow at the end of this month to finish her last year of the course. Josephine hopes she can get into a good dance company after graduating.

"My goal is to have the lead role in works including
Swan Lake and
Giselle," she says. "They have always been my favourites. But I'll be happy as long as I can dance in a role I deserve - if I'm not good enough for a more important role I'll have to leave it to those who dance better than me. But I'll definitely try my best to make it to the front."