Spirit of Hong Kong

Ballet dancer So Hon-wah pays it forward to the next generation

Hong Kong Ballet's former principal dancer runs his school to keep the next generation's dancing dreams alive

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 December, 2013, 12:19pm

Amid the smell of sweet buns and dried seafood, surrounded by old Hong Kong-style tenement and factory buildings, wander the ballerinas in training.

Dressed in sweats and layers of comfortable, if not raggedy, clothing, they weave their way in and out of the street traffic to their destination - the studio of the Youth Ballet of Asia.

Tucked away on the fourth floor of an old factory building along the North Point waterfront, the studio is spacious for one in Hong Kong; a little worn, but bright with blue carpeting in the hallway.

And this is where So Hon-wah, the former principal dancer of the Hong Kong Ballet, can now be found.

In the more than 12 years since he quit the company at age 31, So has turned his hand at everything else to do with ballet - teaching, producing, costume design and creating an international dance competition based in the city, the Asian Grand Prix.

"It doesn't matter if you don't have the perfect body. I want you to love ballet," says So, sitting in the teacher's room, which doubles as a sewing room, closet, storage and office space.

Behind him is a bookcase full of ballet DVDs and a little figurine of Edgar Degas' 1881 sculpture, The Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, perched on a shelf.

So himself is petite-framed, with wispy hair - not the usual physique for a male ballet dancer, who tends to be taller and more solidly built.

"We weren't sure how he would do internationally," says Lynne Charleston, a teacher at Lynne Ballet Studio in Mid-Levels, who remembers So when he was a boy taking part in productions.

"He was always small, but it's been years since I saw him, and I don't think I'd recognise him," she says.

Despite his frame, So has come a long way since then. His love of dancing and the support from his teachers and the Hong Kong Ballet took him to Beijing and on stage as a principal dancer with the company in New York City, playing the role of the last emperor Pu Yi.

He waxes poetic for the next 30 minutes about his life, darting in and out of memories of crying and being nervous about going on stage as a child; his father's reluctance to let him dance; the twists and turns of fate; and the people who, unbeknownst to him as a young boy, shaped his path to success as a professional dancer.

"I'll never know what the true story is, but my teacher told me once that she gave me a scholarship in order to encourage another boy to keep dancing," says So. "I always thought it was because she saw me do well at a competition."

It's this knowledge that pushes So ahead with the studio, the youth ballet and the competition - even borrowing half a million Hong Kong dollars to start the Asian Grand Prix three years ago. He wants to pay it all forward to the next generation.

"Hong Kong kids are at a disadvantage because they start so late in life," he says.

"When they start training heavily by the time they are 15, kids in other countries are way ahead of them.

"The Youth Ballet of Asia is like a stepping stone. As they get stronger, they can audition for Hong Kong Ballet … I want to be the first model of an arts organisation to be self-supporting."

While So does take grants from the government to produce shows, the salaries of the company's dancers are paid by earnings from the school.

He has also turned his hand to costume and prop design as a possible additional source of income for what he sees as developing into a youth ballet academy for local students.

There are presently dozens of ballet studios in the city, but few options for students who want to go professional.

The Academy for Performing Arts is the only school for performers, and the Hong Kong Ballet is the one company that students who want to stay in the city can aspire towards.

But getting into that company is tough, as dancers are recruited not just from Hong Kong, but internationally.

"A lot of my classmates go into teaching after five years of being at the APA. They used to have big dreams of being professional ballet dancers, but after five years they think, 'It's impossible,'" says Pansy Lo Pan-chi, 19, a contemporary dance and ballet major at the academy and a former student of So.

Her dream, she says, is kept alive by So and the other teachers at the Youth Ballet.

"There's a lot of talent in Hong Kong, but they don't get the opportunity," says Sarah Yeung Po-ting, 25, with the Hong Kong Ballet, who danced with the Jean M Wong School of Ballet before training in Germany.

" [So's dream to create a second ballet company ] is a good idea if it really helps local Hong Kong students," she says.

But the idea also faces some challenges.

"Parents in Hong Kong don't usually think of ballet as a potential future job, says Charleston. "But maybe I'm wrong, and there is a market."

And the efforts do eat into So's own savings. He is still paying off the HK$500,000 loan he took three years ago.

"Yes, I worry. Not about money, but because I have a responsibility," he says.

"If I make them regret becoming a ballet dancer, then I have done a bad thing."