Ballet dancers in Hong Kong lack support; Asian Grand Prix may change that

Now in its fifth year, the Asian Grand Prix is growing as a launch pad for young ballet dancers. But rather than take grand leaps, the Hong Kong-based outfit aims for a steady advance

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 August, 2015, 2:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 August, 2015, 2:00am

Waiting nervously by a message board in the Y-Theatre in Chai Wan, Alice Tsang Oi-sim was praying that her hard work would pay off. Could the Swan Lake variation that she just performed be her ticket into the final round of the 5th Asian Grand Prix International Ballet Competition?

At the age of 15, Alice was already an old hand. She has entered all five editions of the competition and last year won a grant to take part in a month-long programme at the New Zealand School of Dance. Although she eventually spent only two weeks at the school in Wellington, it gave her a taste of what professional training was like and fired up her competitive spirit and determination to win a full ballet scholarship.

"The prospect of receiving full-time dance training is truly exhilarating," says Alice, who has been learning ballet since she was seven years old. "The time I normally spend studying in Hong Kong can then be used for [dance] practice and being able to dance all day, every day, is bliss. Their comprehensive courses, facilities and ample opportunities to perform will prepare me much better in case I want to join a company later."

As it turned out she was on point. Alice not only made the finale on Saturday, the international jury (which included respected teachers such as Robert Parker of the Elmhurst School of Dance in Birmingham and Marilyn Rowe of Australian Ballet School) awarded her a full scholarship to attend the New Zealand School of Dance.

And if the experiences of past grand prix winners Tirion Law Lok-huen and Joy Womack are anything to go by, the programme will likely be a springboard to greater opportunities.

Law, too, was awarded a summer stint at the New Zealand school based on a promising performance at the 2nd grand prix and went on to win a three-year programme when she was 16.

Now age 19, she has returned to join the Hong Kong Ballet as an apprentice. She will only have bit parts in its upcoming production of Pinocchio, but Law is thrilled to join the company and looks forward to the challenge of developing as a professional dancer.

She probably wouldn't have the opportunity if she hadn't entered the competition and received funds for professional training, Law adds.

"At that time dancing was limited to being a hobby for me; it was very difficult to strike a balance between my studies and passion for dance as my parents felt academic achievement was more important," she says.

The family could not afford extracurricular activities for her, so she had always relied on scholarships to support her dance training.

"I sometimes wondered why I was pushing myself so hard - I had to turn down all kinds of fun to make time for my practice. I felt quite lost about the prospects of advancing further and thought of quitting. But getting the scholarship relieved my concerns; otherwise, I might just be another university student with an unfulfilled dream."

It would certainly be a great pity if such raw gems were to go unpolished, although that fate is not uncommon in such a pragmatic city as Hong Kong, says Virginia de Blank, Asian Grand Prix's managing director.

While the organisation partners with schools that offer support for short-term courses, de Blank says most aspiring dancers hope to receive a scholarship for full-time professional dance education.

"Of course, students can always join the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. But it's a degree programme and if you want to become a professional dancer and reach an international level, it's better to receive full-time training."

Results in both academic subjects and dance performance count towards students' overall assessment in HKAPA courses, so you have to be good at studies in order to graduate. "Schools overseas focus a lot more on dancing," says de Blank.

"Tirion inspired a lot of young dancers - and their parents - to realise that they can expect a future from dancing. Many parents stop their children from dancing once it's time for them to prepare for the DSE [public examinations]. They think there's simply no way for them to go professional; they dare not let their children venture beyond ballet as a leisure pursuit."

Even when students fail to win a prize, the preparation needed for the grand prix makes it a worthwhile journey. Kicked off with five days of intensive classes, followed by rounds of eliminations, contestants are also required to attend a jury-marked master class when they learn from renowned guest teachers.

It's as much about offering an occasion for dancers to learn from each other as it is for the AGP to spot and support talents
So Hon-wah, AGP founder

Madeleine Onne, Hong Kong Ballet's artistic director, says a triumph in prestigious events such as Youth America Grand Prix isn't a big factor in securing a dancing job.

Rather it is the preparation and practice the students have to go through before a competition that are fantastic for their development, she says. "Meeting other dancers and testing one's ability to perform and handle the pressure is an experience for life."

So Hon-wah, a former principal dancer of the Hong Kong Ballet, founded the Asian Grand Prix in 2011 as a way to provide exposure and support for talented young dancers.

"It's as much about offering an occasion for dancers to learn from each other as it is for the AGP to spot and support talent," says So.

At its core, the competition reflects how So overcame his personal hurdles - his dance education was supported wholly by scholarships - and his desire to pay it forward.

He draws inspiration from the four-decade-old Prix de Lausanne and hopes the AGP can eventually achieve similar standing in the region.

So's outreach efforts began when he founded non-profit Youth Ballet of Asia in 1999 to promote dance and lift the quality of young dancers in the city. And when he started his own school L'ecole de Jeune Ballet in 2002 after leaving the Hong Kong Ballet, the valuable experiences that he and his students gained from participating in competitions abroad had him yearning for a similar regional platform based in Hong Kong.

The idea had been brewing for years, with So constantly mulling over the mechanics with fellow dancers before it finally came to fruition in 2011. The AGP attracted only 86 participants in its first year, but has grown steadily since then to attract 340 entries this year.

So has been surprised by its pace of development, which attracted inquiries from international competitions about setting up partnerships. Although collaboration might raise their profile and speed expansion, So prefers to stay independent and grow at a steady pace rather than risk complications from such alliances.

"The Asian Grand Prix comes about not only because of my effort but also that of many people who are involved in different ways," says So.

"We have our own goals to achieve and I don't want people to get confused by different partnerships. And I would be far prouder if an international competition purely of our own making were to blossom right here in Hong Kong."

This year's finale ended with a gala performance featuring principal dancers Mara Galeazzi and Federico Bonelli from The Royal Ballet in London, alongside previous grand prix winners including Law and Womack.

Womack, the promotional ambassador this year, believes the competition has enormous potential. "The Asian Grand Prix changed my life. It really wants to support talent and highlight people who need to be seen," says the 21-year-old, who joined the Kremlin Ballet Theatre as principal dancer this year.

"It's very eager to help students get to their next level of their career or help professionals who don't have as many opportunities to get seen and find somebody who believes in them."

The first American to graduate from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, Womack had a turbulent time at the Bolshoi Ballet and left in 2013 alleging corruption in the troupe, but she went on take the Asian Grand Prix prize in the same year. She confesses there were times, some fairly recent, when she lost faith in dancing.

"But what brings me the most joy is to see a younger student who looks up to me and say 'you're my inspiration'," says Womack, a keen blogger.

"It gives me inspiration to remember why I love [dance] so much and remember that I really couldn't live my life without that constant daily struggle," she says.

"If I'm honest, it's definitely the fear of failure that [motivates me]. I think that's something we can all agree on: that we are afraid to fail but at the same time we know that we each have to find our passion.

"We will fall down but just know that it's not that scary; we just have to pick ourselves back up and keep going."