On a sleepy summer morning recently, a group of about 50 dancers from the New York City Ballet gathered in a sunny rehearsal studio at Lincoln Center and stretched. They had just come from three weeks off and were back in company class, preparing for a tour of upstate New York. Some carried energy drinks and bottles of hand sanitizer; others brought their dogs, who sat under the barre as the dancers began a series of exercises – bends, stretches, jumps and pirouettes.
Tall and majestic, Chun Wai Chan stood near the center of the studio. In May, he became the first Chinese-born principal dancer in City Ballet’s 74-year history, only the fourth Asian to hold the rank. In the studio that morning, some dancers were still loosening up their routines. But he was brimming with energy, vowing to use class time to exercise every muscle.
“I have to focus,” Chan, 30, said. “I really need to surpass myself”
Born in Huizhou, an industrial city in southeast China, Chan has a loyal fan base in his home country. (During the pandemic, he participated in “Dance Smash,” a popular Chinese TV show.) While he only joined City Ballet last year, after a decade at Houston Ballet, he has already become one of its rising stars. In performances of Jerome Robbins’ “The Cage” and Justin Peck’s “Partita” last season, he was hailed as an elegant and agile performer. He has also developed a large following on social media, where he posts dance clips, as well as tutorials on topics such as building abdominal muscles and applying makeup.
Chan embraced the story of his appointment to City Ballet, talking about Asian dancers’ struggles to gain recognition and the stereotypes about Asians that persist in classics like “The Nutcracker.” Within the company, where nine of the 96 dancers are of Asian origin, his colleagues and teachers celebrated his promotion.
“It’s an incredible moment not just for him, but for the institution,” said Georgina Pazcoguin, another dancer who as an activist has worked to eliminate demeaning portrayals of Asian people in ballet. “I can’t stress enough how wonderfully joyful it is and how proud I am – and, in the same breath, I also know we have more to do.”
Chan wants to help reinvent an art form whose main lineage is European and change perceptions about ballet dancers. “I’m the first, but I really hope it doesn’t take another 70 years to get another one,” he said. “Princes can also be Asian.”
At a young age, Chan’s parents, with Olympic aspirations in mind, enrolled him in swimming lessons. But after accompanying his sister to ballet lessons, he had other ideas.
At age 6, he began his own ballet studies and was one of the few boys in his class. His parents were skeptical of his passion and they encouraged him to pursue a career as a lawyer, doctor or accountant instead.
At the age of 12, he wrote a letter to his parents describing his determination to study dance and perform on the biggest stages in the world. They agreed to send him to a performing arts boarding school in Guangzhou, a city about 90 miles away.
Chan’s breakup came at age 18, when he was a 2010 Prix de Lausanne finalist in Switzerland and won a scholarship to study at Houston Ballet. He joined this company as a dancer two years later and became director in 2017.
There he gained a reputation as a confident and sensitive performer. He has also worked with City Ballet’s resident choreographer Peck, who in 2019 created “Reflections” for Houston Ballet.
Peck was impressed by Chan’s curiosity. “He’s always eager to dig a little deeper, to digest the details, to understand the intent behind a move or a step,” Peck said. “After working on ‘Reflections’ together, it was absolutely obvious to me that Chun Wai had a tremendous work ethic, focus and stage presence.”
The two had dinner in Houston, where Chan once expressed an interest in dancing in New York. At the beginning of 2020, he was invited to take part in a course at the City Ballet and was offered a soloist position there from autumn 2020.
But he should wait. The pandemic hit, and as cultural life across the country ground to a halt, the Houston Ballet canceled dozens of performances. During the shutdown, Chan taught online classes and recorded dance videos with friends.
In mid-2020, eager to perform for live audiences again, Chan returned to China, where coronavirus infections were low and many theaters remained open. He joined the second season of “Dance Smash”, which brought together artists from various genres, including modern dance, ballet and traditional Chinese dance.
Chan won over audiences with moving performances of ballet and modern dance, and qualified for the final four before being eliminated. He has built a following of over 200,000 on Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-like social media platform. His fans called him the “prince of ballet”.
He returned to New York last year as a foreigner. The majority of City Ballet dancers spend years together training at the prestigious School of American Ballet. There they developed a specialty in the choreography of George Balanchine, co-founder and long-time artistic director of the company.
Chan, who was trained in the Russian Vaganova Method, initially struggled to master Balanchine’s choreography.
“I felt like everything I learned was moot – that it meant nothing,” he said. “They broke me into several pieces and rebuilt me. And after a few weeks, I felt much more comfortable, as if there was more musicality and more freedom.
Jonathan Stafford, artistic director of City Ballet, said Chan quickly adapted to the Balanchine aesthetic. “He has this magnetic quality on stage,” Stafford said. “He can be elegant, very naturally, but he can also be very dynamic. He just attracts you.
When the City Ballet returned to the stage after the pandemic shutdown, Chan made several debuts, including George Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” and Black Swan’s pas de deux in an excerpt from the version of “Swan Lake by Peter Martins. During that year’s spring season, New York Times dance critic Gia Kourlas wrote that he was “a noble and generous presence in every role I’ve seen him dance.”
Chan is eager to reinvent cherished roles. He said his Chinese identity influenced his style. When performing the pas de deux from “Swan Lake,” for example, he said he tried to be humble and hesitant while expressing his love, which he said sounded more Chinese to him, rather than trust and royalty typical of the role.
“I’m not just performing like Westerners do,” he said. “I also bring some of my Asian culture and Asian values to my body language.”
Chan’s promotion comes at a time when cultural institutions are facing public pressure to diversify their ranks. About 27% of City Ballet dancers identify as ethnic minorities, up from about 14% in 2010. A recent spike in violence against Asians in the United States has reverberated through the dance world, sparking discussions about the lack of Asian dancers in leading roles. and the representation of Asians in the performing arts.
In recent years, many companies have taken steps to eliminate stereotypes, including in “The Nutcracker,” which often incorporates bamboo hats and stereotyped moves into a short routine when performers introduce tea from China.
Chan said he was encouraged by efforts to rethink outdated tropes. “Any time there are changes to make people more comfortable, I think it’s an improvement,” he said.
In China, Chan’s success has become a source of pride. News of his promotion to Principal Dancer was widely publicized and he was featured several times in Chinese media, under titles such as ‘The Ballet Knight’ and ‘After ‘Dance Smash’ he conquered New York “.
Chan is interested in bringing back what he learned in China – where, he said, appreciation for ballet is lacking. He also hopes to increase understanding of traditional Chinese dance in the United States.
After performances, audience members sometimes tell Chan that they have never seen Asian dancers in lead roles. He was moved to hear young dancers of color say his example gave them hope for their own careers.
“Before, I thought I was dancing just for me,” he said. “Now I dance for my family, for the public, for the whole dance community.”