What inspired you to become a male ballet dancer?
Kohei: I started ballet when I was 11. My father was a ballet dancer, and I always had bad posture and flexibility. My father told me to do something about it. I asked him about ballet and he initially said no. He thought ballet was too hard – I think he thought it would break my heart if I couldn’t do it properly! I ended up trying it for myself, and here I am today!
Shaun: I started dancing when I was 6. I did a lot of tap and jazz, and when I turned 7 I decided I wanted to do ballet. My Mum took me to class and I came out of it crying, saying I never wanted to do it again. A week later, she put me into tap and I asked her why I wasn’t doing ballet again, and she reminded me that I was upset when I tried it, but I was adamant that I loved it. I continued doing ballet and decided around 13 – 14 that it was something I really wanted to pursue. I was lucky enough to come here and join Queensland Ballet’s Junior Extension Program (now Associate Program), and continued through the Academy until I joined the Company.
Li: I started training at 11 in Beijing. Ballet found me. I didn’t know much about it when I started. I really fell in love with ballet at around 13 - 14 years old. Before, I had no idea what ballet was, and I thought I hated it at the time. Once I fell in love with it, everything changed. That was my life’s pursuit and that was when the day wasn’t long enough for me to practise to be the best. It was a fantastic journey that took me all around the world.
Christian: When I was 6, a lady came to my school seeking dance talent. I tried ballet for a few weeks as a result, but did not enjoy it and stopped going. Later, when I was 9, my mother took me to an audition at the national school in Bulgaria. I got accepted, which was apparently very prestigious, but I didn’t know at the time. Four years into the training, I wanted my mother to take me out as I hated it. The teachers were very tough, the days very long, and I wanted to be a normal kid like my brother. But my mother said no, I was to graduate and decide when I could make an educated decision. Eight years later, when I was finishing school, I discovered what it was all about. I saw different methods of training, other dancers, and I couldn’t get enough of it so I kept going. And here I am today.
Paul: I started tap dancing when I was four in Wagga Wagga, NSW. At 11, I realised I really wanted to pursue ballet. My ballet teacher left Wagga just after I turned 13. For three years I used to travel from Wagga to Canberra for my training every weekend, about a 300km trip every Friday. I’d dance in the afternoon in Canberra on Fridays, and all day Saturdays, Sundays, then travel back home on the bus and get back at about 1am and continue my schooling for the rest of the week. I knew at that time that’s what I really wanted to do. I didn’t have a Plan B. It wasn’t a choice – it was a great privilege. I danced for 25 years all over the world. If you’re a country kid and you think it’s a bit too difficult, think again! There’re so many possibilities out there for you.
Li, what was one of the most challenging ballets you’ve done?
Rudolf Nureyev’s Don Quixote, that was really hard!
Kohei, tell us about your typical day as a Soloist.
At Queensland Ballet, there’s not a huge difference between the schedule of the Soloists versus the Company Dancers. We do classes in the morning, and rehearsal until the end of the day. As a Soloist, we have more specific roles, which means we get more 1:1 coaching with ballet masters and mistresses. We get more opportunities to dance too.
Shaun, what's the most satisfying thing is about being a ballet dancer?
Coming in every day, trying to better yourself as a dancer and person makes life a lot easier. It’s nice to come into a job every day and love what you do. For me, that feeling is something I’ll always appreciate.
As a professional dancer starting full-time quite young, do you feel you missed out on your childhood?
It could be seen this way, but at the end it is worth it. The pleasure you will receive from your success in training and preforming will outweigh the sacrifices made earlier.
How long do you spend stretching each day?
Shaun: There’s a safe and non-safe way to stretch, especially with a developing body. Our physios recommend dynamic stretching. This involves not sitting in a position before class, but after class when your body is warm, do your stretches for flexibility. Know your body and understand when it’s too much so you don’t injure yourself.
Li: Stretching is very important. There’s never too much flexibility. We want strength, but as young dancers we recommend getting as flexible as possible.
What challenges did you overcome as a male ballet dancer, and how did you overcome them?
Shaun: Everyone has individual challenges and things to work on, whether it’s strength, facility, coordination or acting.
Kohei: For me, it was language I was struggling with. Ballets don’t really need speaking, but you need it for rehearsals and classes. If you keep trying, it will work out.
Li: Every dancer has different challenges. For me, when I went to Beijing Dance Academy, I couldn’t turn. I would experience motion sickness, so I couldn’t even get on a bus without feeling sick. If you can’t turn as a dancer, you’re in trouble. I went through extreme measures to overcome that. I’d go into a dark studio, light a candle and keep turning around the candlelight. I eventually conquered it and became one of the best turners in China. If you work through your weakness, you’ll become stronger in that area.
For Li, what made you become a stockbroker?
I wanted to help my family in China and to educate my children.
What brought you back to ballet?
My passion for the artform and a desire to help the new generation to become the best possible dancers.
Would you recommend ballet students studying business as well?
All knowledge in life is helpful and valuable.
What advice do you have for those boys who might be experiencing bullying on account of being a ballerino?
Paul: My escape was music. Music would take me on a trip. It was a very important part of my escape from bullying. Bullying can be quite detrimental, so if you believe in something, trust yourself. I realised that the kids who used to bully me were, in a way, envious of me because they knew I wanted to be a dancer so badly and nothing would stop me. Have faith, keep pushing and working hard, because it’s so worth the effort.
Shaun: I was lucky to have supportive parents. I wasn’t a very confident person socially, so I struggled for a few years. I got more comfortable and I always thought the incidences I experienced from school were more from their ignorance, and had nothing to do with me. I had friends and I was lucky because I was a little sporty and was therefore accepted in a different way. For me, there was a lot to look forward to. Because I enjoyed it so much it meant I could get through.
Christian: At the Academy, we’re working hard to profile boys and men in ballet, because it’s such an important part of the artform. Through our academic partner, Kelvin Grove State College, there’s a very different culture. Our students are mixed with the general population of the school, and ballet is quite accepted and respected by their peers. In our environment, bullying is not tolerated, and the Academy and College take it very seriously.
What is your best advice for a young male dancer?
Follow your passion. It will be hard work. Accept that and keep going. It takes years to become a dancer, but the pain and all the years of hard work will be worth it at the end. The discipline you will gain will stay with you for life.