Accidental ballet dancer a star ascendant
Chinese-born dancer took ballet when another class was filled, and he learned gratitude from another unexpected turn of events, reports.
That Zhang Jinhao finds himself on stage, living out his love of ballet, is one of the little wonders of life. He performs from the heart, and clearly this is his life’s work.
“It’s about feeling the details of every gesture, feeling the emotions and personality of the character I dance, and trying to understand what he is like and what he is trying to communicate,” said the 20-year-old rising star of the English National Ballet company.
Zhang, who started studying ballet at the age of 4, has won international acclaim, including a silver medal at the Genee International Ballet Competition in 2011, finishing eighth in the prestigious Prix de Lausanne in 2013, and winning the English National Ballet’s Emerging Dancer competition last year.
He joined the English National Ballet in 2014.
On stage, he wins his audience over with the perfection of his technique and his ability to create true and believable characters, be it a wealthy boss, a loyal servant or a beautiful swan.
In conversation his youthful liveliness and passion for the profession shows through strongly, while his 185 centimeter, muscular body commands respect.
Sitting down for an interview in a small office above his rehearsal studio, he elegantly moves his head, hands and feet in the air to demonstrate how concepts like love, promise, and suicide are acted out in ballet.
Suddenly these soundless movements seem to vividly describe what writers have attempted to convey for generations.
One of his favorite roles is Basilio in Don Quixote, which is a ballet originally choreographed in 1869, based on episodes taken from the famous Spanish novel Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes.
Competing in the Prix de Lausanne, Zhang performed the passionate dance of a proud Basilio as he is about to get married. The fast-moving excerpt, lasting for just over a minute on stage, consists of jumps and turns, and paints a cheerful and lively picture representative of Spanish culture.
Zhang has loved this dance since high school. His teachers believed that he would be better suited to the prince character, since there is a royal feeling to his height, his confidence and elegant calmness, but Zhang prefers the technical and artistic challenges required of the Basilio character, who is more of a free spirit.
Despite years of practice, Zhang felt nervous when he competed in the Prix de Lausanne, which turned out to be a life-changing opportunity for him when he won a scholarship to study at the English National Ballet School as a result.
In addition to the importance of the competition was the technical challenge of the 3.5 percent stage slope.
“I was so, so nervous,” Zhang recounted. “I knew that many dancers actually fell when they landed on their tiptoes after a jump because of this slope, so I dared not think about the slope when I was on stage.”
To overcome this fear, he forced himself to forget about the stage, to focus on Basilio’s joyful feelings in that particular marriage, to think about Basilio’s beautiful bride-to-be, and to enjoy himself.
“I did it, and I didn’t make a single mistake.”
Raised in Dalian, Liaoning province, Zhang started ballet quite by accident.
“When I was young, I was very thin and did not eat meals properly, so my mother wanted me to do more exercise. She took me to enroll in a kung fu class, but sadly the class was filled.”
The teacher in charge of registration told Zhang’s mother that there is little difference between kung fu and ballet, and urged Zhang to try ballet.
Zhang fell in love with it immediately, and he recollected his childhood encounter with ballet with fondness.
“I was the only boy in a class full of girls, and they teased me about it. On one hand I was embarrassed, but at the same time I enjoyed the attention because I stood out.”
After he studied ballet for two years, his mother wanted him to stop because of the pressure of school work. But by then he was a favorite pupil of the ballet school director, who told his mother that Zhang had great talent and urged her to allow him to continue.
After another two years, it came time for Zhang to decide whether he wanted to do ballet professionally.
“I chose to do it. But at the age of 8, I did not know what being a professional ballet dancer mean at all.”
As a professional dancer, Zhang joined the school affiliated with the Liaoning Ballet, where he trained for six years before starting his undergraduate degree in ballet at Tongji University in Shanghai.
Success followed success in his career, but one big disappointment underlined how important ballet was to him.
In 2013, right after his success at the Prix de Lausanne, he continued to train for another international competition in Moscow.
“I was not taking any rest, and pushed my body to the extreme extent of what it could bear. I was tired, and didn’t look after myself properly.”
Zhang had never had a problem with discipline and he kept pushing himself.
Just before the competition, he landed on the back of his foot in a jump during a rehearsal and fractured a bone.
“Immediately I could not feel my foot and I was taken to the hospital.”
For the next four months, he was bedridden, unable to move his foot.
“I was disappointed and frustrated. I was scared that I might not be able to dance again after the plaster was taken off. I asked myself why I chose to be a professional dancer, and I questioned what I could ever do if I stopped dancing.”
He experienced intense grief and self-doubt until “I realized that I could not live without ballet. I never knew how much I loved ballet until then.”
After the plaster was gone, he said, the pain of having to master the skill of standing, turning and jumping on his tiptoes was unspeakable.
But Zhang was determined. “I don’t like being a quitter, so I wouldn’t give up.”
Three years have passed and he can still feel the injury when he gets really tired, but he said he has learned to take care of his body and control the pain.
Zhang is now working towards his next goal, which is to perform lead roles at the English National Ballet.
“Every performance is a new challenge because I have to do my best to give the audience the best experience.”
Every performance is a new challenge because I have to do my best to give the audience the best experience.”
performer of the English
Zhang Jinhao performs his dance, DyingSwan, during the English National Ballet’s Emerging Dancer competition last year.