She saw a picture of a ballerina, and wanted to be just like her. Josephine Cheung Ching-nga, 19, graduated from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow this summer after three years training and is currently with a ballet company in Toronto.
Cheung was the first Chinese student ever to enter the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in September 2010 - one of the best professional ballet schools in the world.
Dance training at the academy was very intense and life in Moscow was hard. “The teachers would push you to your limits,” said Cheung. “I was usually so exhausted at the end of the day that I did not have time to feel homesick and had to go to bed very early in order to prepare for another day of intense training.”
Students at the academy receive six to seven hours of dance training every day for six days a week, and for Cheung, there was an extra of one and a half to two hours of Russian language in the morning before her dance training starts.
“Language was the biggest barrier when I first arrived,” Cheung said, when asked about the biggest difficulty she encountered at the outset. “I had to communicate with my schoolmates mainly with body language.”
The dancer has had to forfeit quality time with her family and friends in order to pursue her dream. “The internet connection in Moscow was so bad that I could not really Skype with my mum, and with the time difference between Moscow and Hong Kong, the only way to communicate with my family was through Whatsapp and Facebook.”
Times could become really hard at the Bolshoi, and Cheung admits she often wanted to give up and there was one time that she was so frustrated she nearly left Moscow.
“Life was really hard there. There were difficult steps to learn and the teachers are strict.”
Despite the frustrations, she persevered by going to the dance studio at night to continue practicing her steps until she perfected them. “I told myself, this is what I want to do, so I just have to keep going. And I just kept going.”
Cheung first dreamt of becoming a professional ballet dancer when she was 14, but it took her a year to summon up enough courage to tell her parents.
“I did not want to just attend an ordinary university and get any ordinary job. I knew that was not what I wanted,” she said.
She carefully wrote a two-page letter convincing her mother to allow her to apply to professional dancing schools. In the letter, she included a list of international dance schools, which she had already researched.
Although she got her mother’s approval, she received little to no support from her parents at first. “I had to do it all by myself, at the age of 15,” she said.
Cheung grew up in Shatin and attended Maryknoll Convent School, where her conservative parents intended her to receive a proper education and take up a professional career, such as law. Her mother works at the Labour Tribunal and her father was an engineer.
The budding ballerina hopes to work as a performer for as long as she can, and aims to teach ballet in Hong Kong when her career ends so Hongkongers can appreciate ballet more.
Cheung would love to dance in such prestigious ballets as Giselle and Swan Lake, as these have been her favourites since childhood.
“I would definitely choose Bolshoi again if I had another chance. Bolshoi provided me with really good training and helped me a lot,” she said. “I am happy with what I am and where I am now.”