Lam Chun-wing, Hongkonger storming the classical ballet world
Teenager's securing of contract as the Paris Opera Ballet's first Chinese dancer after four years of hard training is highlight of Jean M Wong's 55 years as a dance teacher, she says of ex-pupil
In 2011, Lam Chun-wing won a place at the Paris Opera Ballet School. He was then 14, the son of an engineer and primary school teacher. He'd just finished form three at STFA Lee Shau Kee College in Kwai Tsing, he liked listening to Leona Lewis and he loved Black Swan. Of Natalie Portman's unhinged striving for perfection, he once said: "I cried. It took half an hour to calm down - that movie takes your heart out."
He was a little shy, jet-lagged and sneezy after two weeks of summer school with the Royal Ballet in London, where he'd been desperately homesick. He knew no French. This writer, who interviewed him at the Jean M. Wong School of Ballet's headquarters in North Point (he'd started at the school's Tsuen Wan studio, aged seven), wanted to wrap him in cotton wool. How would he fare in the shark tank - forget swans - of the overseas ballet world?
Four years on, Lam has just become the first Chinese member of the Paris Opera Ballet. The achievement is truly remarkable.
The Paris Opera Ballet was founded in 1669, and is the world's oldest national ballet company. To survive four years of its Darwinian system is a feat of endurance. When Lam started, he and a Ukrainian boy were the only two non-French students in his dance class.
"He was my best friend," says Lam. "And at the end of the first year he was kicked out."
Jean Wong, sitting in on this interview with her daughter Liat Chen, who's now the school's director, winces a little at the term. But she knows the unsentimental winnowing of dance. "The first three years were really, really difficult," continues Lam, calmly. "Shall I explain?"
He now speaks beautifully measured English and French. He's just as appealing in face and manner but he seems considerably more confident, and his high-stepping, feline grace draws every eye in the school's corridors.
"I was always alone because I couldn't communicate properly," he says. "I was sleeping in a dormitory and I cried a lot. I couldn't understand anything." Because of the time difference between Paris and Hong Kong, he was given special permission to make morning phone calls. He rang his mother every day.
When he came home that first December, his parents told him that his aunt - to whom he was extremely close and who'd been particularly supportive of his dancing - had cancer. She died during his second year. He was allowed back to say goodbye; then he returned to his ballet history, anatomy and music exams (in French).
What saved him - apart from his art - were his weekend host families. The school closes every Friday at 5pm and the pupils disperse until Sunday at 8pm. Through Wong's contacts, he initially stayed with a family in the 16th arrondissement, one of the most desirable districts in Paris. They later moved, as chance would have it, to Hong Kong.
Another host family have embraced him as a son and taught him to cook; he baked a walnut cake for Wong when she came to visit.
In his fourth year, he moved out of the school to flat-sit for the original family, and that's when he bloomed. There is, after all, a crucial difference between loneliness and independence. Free from living among strangers, he strove joyfully alone. "He is exceptionally disciplined," says Chen. "It's quite scary how determined he is. He understands delayed gratification."
The Paris Opera Ballet was his ultimate goal, but he auditioned for other companies, including, in February, the Hong Kong Ballet.
"They offered an apprentice contract," he says. An apprentice is a level below the corps de ballet and the contract runs for 12 months. In Paris, he will be in the corps; and his contract lasts until the unimaginable age of 42. It's the terpsichorean golden rice bowl.
The director of dance at the Paris Opera Ballet is Benjamin Millepied, husband of actress Natalie Portman. Lam has already danced with the company - the five-degree incline of the Palais Garnier's raked stage was an initial challenge - and met Millepied.
"I think he's trying to promote young dancers earlier," he says. "He's a lot more open-minded. He didn't have a career at the Paris Opera and I think he will bring good changes to it." With that shift in rigid hierarchy, any opportunity for a fiercely focused dancer is possible.
He's learned to be two people: "a different person in both cities," he says. He finds himself thinking in French. Some of his Cantonese vocabulary is slipping away, and his knowledge of written characters is fading. He doesn't have a French name but people address him as Mr Wing, which seems appropriate for someone now taking flight.
Life for the Lam family has been transformed in four years: his older sister was so taken with the French lifestyle she's now studying translation in Lyon.
Last night and tonight, he's dancing the role of Basilio in the school's Stars of Tomorrow gala production of Don Quixote, at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. That's how it raises money for the kind of scholarship that funded his Paris adventure. One day, he says, he may become a teacher himself. But, first, there will be other roles.
It's 55 years since Jean Wong, a graduate of London's Royal Academy of Dance, set up a ballet school in Hong Kong, intended for the Chinese-speaking community, not the colony's expatriates. She estimates that she's taught more than 10,000 students in that time.
She's still a wonderfully straight-backed, commanding presence who has seen a dream come true.
"The highlight of my career," she says - and she repeats this in the foreword of the Don Quixote programme - "is Lam Chun-wing's admission to the Paris Opera Ballet School."