Breaking Cultural Barriers at the Paris Opera Ballet ; First Chinese Dancer Hired by French Company Performs in New Season

By Lau, Joyce | International New York Times, October 16, 2015 | Go to article overview

Breaking Cultural Barriers at the Paris Opera Ballet ; First Chinese Dancer Hired by French Company Performs in New Season


Lau, Joyce, International New York Times


Lam Chun-wing, the first Chinese dancer hired by French company, performs in its new season.

When its season opened late last month, the Paris Opera Ballet included the first Chinese dancer to be hired in its 346-year history.

Lam Chun-wing, a 19-year-old from a working-class Hong Kong suburb, is an unlikely addition to the world's oldest ballet company -- a state institution steeped in French tradition. He has already danced in George Balanchine's "Themes and Variations," plus a work by Jerome Robbins, in a run that ended on Sunday. In November and December, Mr. Lam will perform in Rudolf Nureyev's "La Bayadere."

Mr. Lam's entry to the Paris Opera Ballet is part of a gradual change at the state-financed company, where more than 90 percent of the dancers are French. He grew up in a small Hong Kong apartment with five relatives and started taking dance lessons at age 7 at a small branch of a chain of schools run by Jean M. Wong, the grande dame of the territory's ballet teachers. At an annual event held only for top students, Ms. Wong quickly noticed that the boy was blessed with both talent and a classical dancer's ideal proportions.

"Everything about him is very precise," said Ms. Wong, who has been teaching for 55 years. "And he's so musical -- he finishes each step exactly on the note." She was so impressed that she sent a DVD of Mr. Lam's dancing to the Ballet School at the Paris Opera Ballet in 2011. That same year, at 14, he became the first Chinese dancer to be admitted into the academy.

Mr. Lam had his lucky break last December, when the Paris Opera Ballet needed a last-minute replacement for a production of Jean- Guillaume Bart's "La Source." He danced a technically difficult scene in which male dancers portray otherworldly creatures, after both some main dancers and their replacements were injured. At the time, Mr. Lam was still a student and had not yet been hired by the company.

Nevertheless, he made his professional debut at the ornate Palais Garnier -- painted blue, as the understudy of an understudy of an elf. After filling in for 23 shows, he got a back-stage thank-you directly from Benjamin Millepied, the Paris Opera's dance director.

"He has very polished technique -- he's quick and fit," Mr. Millepied said in a telephone interview, adding that Mr. Lam was only one of three male dancers the company hired this year. "He's got great proportions. And after that trial, we knew he would be great for the company."

Mr. Millepied spoke of a "cultural change" at the ballet -- one that reflected his international outlook and "American influences." Mr. Millepied, a native of Bordeaux, grew up partly in Senegal and danced with the New York City Ballet for more than a decade. He became a Hollywood name when he choreographed "Black Swan," where he met and married the movie's star, Natalie Portman.

"We want more diversity in the Paris Opera," Mr. Millepied said. "We want a 21st-century company that truly resembles the community." He added that he wished to see more international dancers at both the company and its school.

Back in Hong Kong in August, Mr. Lam was the star attraction at the Jean M. Wong School's 55th anniversary gala, where he danced the role of a dashing, comedic Basilio in "Don Quixote."

He was clearly the hometown hero in the sort of student show where 5-year-olds toddle around the edges of the village scenes in tutus. …

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