Ballet dancers have to be artistic early bloomers. Generation after generation of students graduating from ballet academies, often as young as sixteen, are welcomed into the lower ranks of professional ballet companies. At that age, they must not only be flawless, classical technicians, but also fully formed artists; They are expected to breathe life into both contemporary work as well as classical ballets created almost 200 years ago.
An example: premiering in 1832, the ballet “La Sylphide” takes place in Scotland, where a man is lured away from his betrothed on his wedding day by a magical Sylph, ultimately losing his earthly bride and his community as a result. The reason this work has survived for this many years is that it is a sublime essay on romantic doubt. The Sylph is not real, she represents the idea of the Other Woman – and a full arc of universal emotions is explored through the work. Generations of young dancers have risen to the challenge of penning their own interpretation, taking the past and carrying it forward to make it relevant for today. This is the immortal apex of what it means to be a classical dancer, and an expectation thrust on the youngest artistic professionals.
I first became aware of Calvin Royal III when he competed at Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP). YAGP travels the world auditioning the brightest ballet students, inviting them to the final auditions in New York, where they are seen by the directors of the leading ballet schools and companies. The model has eliminated many traditional financial barriers for young dancers by offering exposure for dancers who would otherwise never be seen. As a result, it has made talent the great equalizer, as opposed to financial means, and has changed how dancers are selected for companies. Calvin was one such student, a traditionally unlikely candidate for American Ballet Theatre – yet his natural dance talent and incredible potential has earned him a spot in the corps de ballet, with the potential “to be a breakthrough artist of color in a classical forum,” says ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie. It was just announced at the time of publication that Calvin will be the recipient of a Leonore Annenberg Fund Fellowship, identified as one of seven young artists of exceptional promise, receiving $50,000 a year for up to two years.
You will often see Calvin with his good friend, fellow ABT corps de ballet dancer Zhong Jing Fang. Originally from Shanghai, her path to ABT was also paved by competitions, which gave her exposure, eventually leading her to the ABT artistic staff. Both of these young dancers stand out as artists.
PHIL CHAN: What is your first memory of a dancer?
ZHONG JING FANG: The first image of a dancer was Galina Ulanova dancing “The Dying Swan” on TV. I was five. I very impressed by her movement quality; she really transformed herself, becoming this bird: the swan. She also dies in the end, which may seem like a strange detail to focus on for a five year old, but it was such a strong image that burned a picture in my mind.
When I was nine, my mom came home and said, “I saw that the Shanghai Ballet School is auditioning. Would you like to go?” I’m not sure why they chose me actually, but my teacher told me later that it was my long straight legs with a tiny head, rare for most Chinese girls. Out of 2,000 kids, I was one of 17 chosen.
PHIL CHAN: How was adjusting to the new life at school?
ZHONG JING FANG: The first semester I was really bad. I wasn’t prepared to train like that, stretching your legs every single day and doing 1000 sit-ups…that’s how we used to train. I remember it being really, really intense and I almost wanted to quit. My teacher had a conversation with my father after the first semester, “your daughter is really not picking up everything, she might need to go home. I don’t think she should wait seven years to be here because this is how we are: very strict.” So my father came up to me, I had no idea, and he said, “if you don’t want to be a dancer, we can leave now. We don’t have to stay another semester and I don’t have to pay all this money or waste any more time.” In that moment, I just had to make a choice. I really wanted to be a dancer, so I just stayed there for another semester – I went from the bottom of the class to the top. My teachers said, “okay, she can stay now.”
PHIL CHAN: And you, Calvin?
CALVIN ROYAL III: To be honest, I didn’t see my first legitimate ballet until I moved to New York. I was 17. Growing up, my parents put us in sports and things but that didn’t stick. I always wanted to do something creative. I was never good enough or never tall enough for the basketball team or anything like that.
I went online and found out about a piano program at a performing arts middle school – I must have only been 11 or 12 – I auditioned for the program and got in. When I got to high school, I had to either decide to go into piano or try something completely different. I had a lot of friends that were actors and dancers in middle school, so I applied to the musical theater program and I got into the dance program. How, I don’t know, because my teachers showed me some of the video from the audition and it wasn’t pretty.
PHIL CHAN: And how did you each get to New York, to American Ballet Theatre?
CALVIN ROYAL III: My first classical ballet class was my freshman year of high school, two hands on the bar. I didn’t know how to pull my pants all the way up – it was tragic, the first six or eight months. I was commuting maybe an hour and a half to high school. I actually wanted to quit after freshman year, but my teachers were very persistent. They had a meeting with me and they told me I should try to keep with it. Once I got stronger, I saw that my body was changing and it didn’t hurt as much, so I stuck with it. My teacher from Florida brought us to some competitions, not to necessarily win the prizes; she wanted us to go out and get exposure, performance opportunities, and to get feedback from panels of judges on what we needed to work on.
In my junior year, my ballet teacher took a group of us to Youth America Grand Prix. I went to the semi-finals and placed to go to New York. I came to New York and placed in the Finals, and that’s what got me the scholarship to come to ABT. I danced a Siegfried solo from “Swan Lake,” I felt completely unprepared – I was a mess. After I performed, my teacher came backstage and pulled me aside and said, “we need to talk.” She brought me outside the theater and said that the director from the ABT school came and that they wanted to speak to me. “They want you to come to the ABT school,” and I said “ABT? The company?” It didn’t really hit me that I would be going to study at the with the company I had seen in all the videos until they told they wanted me to leave high school and move to New York. I made the decision to move from Florida to New York my senior year and start my life here.
ZHONG JING FANG: ABT was always my dream company. The first time I saw them was on a video of “Le Corsaire”. My teacher showed it to us and I was amazed. I actually competed with variations that I learned from that video! I was very attracted to the way they moved. We were learning the full “Paquita” from ABT’s video. So the company has had a relationship to me; it has always been my gold standard company.
When I was a little bit more mature in school, they chose me to attend competitions to represent the school. My first competition was at 16, when I won the Gold Prize at Prix de Lausanne. As one of the winners, I was allowed to choose a year of scholarship to approximately 20 schools around the world. At the time, I had a teacher who used to live in Germany, and she suggested the Hamburg Ballet School, so that’s what I picked.
Back then, it was still tough in China for good students to leave the country. The government didn’t allow me to go, so I was sad, yet somehow I kept being allowed to take part in international competitions. I took a lot from those competition experiences. It’s wonderful how you can learn so much from other dancers from different countries. I had always dreamt of dancing in a different country, so I sent my resume to as many companies as I could. In the end, it was ABT that reached back…They responded back! Somehow I got into the Studio Company!
PHIL CHAN: And somehow you were allowed out?
ZHONG JING FANG: I was very shocked to get my visa, so I just came by myself with two suitcases – that was it! I didn’t speak any English, but when I got picked up at the airport by Mary Jo Ziesel and the ABT staff, I insisted that the only place I wanted to go was ABT. I was such a pain, but they took me with my two suitcases all the way to a 890 Broadway at 7pm on a Saturday night. My mind was blown – those posters, pictures of dancers I loved: Nina Ananiashvili and Julio Bocca doing “Sleeping Beauty,” and Vladimir Malakhov, and Julie Kent…
PHIL CHAN: The two of you both used competitions as a platform to a professional career: Calvin, through connecting you to scholarship resources at a leading institution, and ZJ, to get enough international recognition to obtain a visa in the US. What is it about ABT that is still exciting and stimulating for you as a place to work?
CALVIN ROYAL III: ABT, as compared to companies like the Bolshoi or Paris Opera – we have a very different façade. There are people with so many different backgrounds at ABT, I feel like I’m a part of a collective group of people that are very different. There are no two people that are the same.
ZHONG JING FANG: I remember when we were in China, and we had an interview where ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie discussed how he loves having dancers interpret a role in their own way. He likes to see five different ballerinas perform Kitri [the lead ballerina role in “Don Quixote”].
When we were on tour in Japan, one of my friends who studied acting with me in New York City came and watched both a class and a performance. She said that everyone was beautiful, different, and unique in class – overwhelming because she didn’t know who to watch. Then on stage somehow we all become a group together.
PHIL CHAN: It’s clear that classicism is colliding with a growing group of beautiful dancers who don’t fit the traditional classical mold. I see huge potential in engaging new audiences. As young classical dancers, how do you connect the history of these works and make them relevant to today’s audiences?
ZHONG JING FANG: If you just copy the old versions of these ballets, it becomes mechanical and doesn’t become art. We’re not imitating the past. Classicism is what carries the work forward, the beauty of classical ballet is that it allows contemporary artists to infuse them with new energy – to make these dances contemporary and relevant. The classical style is the bridge.
CALVIN ROYAL III: As an artist, how can you go forward without an understanding of what came before you? How can you look at something modern if you don’t know what your work is drawing from. There are themes and meanings in classical ballet that are still relatable to our 21st century life. We experience loss, love…so many things that are a part of the classics. They are allegories. I feel like when someone’s exposed to an art experience, they become more aware of what’s going on in other areas of their life.
PHIL CHAN: How do we get Millennials to unplug and attend a live performance? What will they get out of it?
CALVIN ROYAL III: The fact that we have widespread social media access is a huge advantage. I feel like it’s an excellent platform to help spread the word about what were doing.
ZHONG JING FANG: We pose questions like this to ourselves all the time – the carrying generation – because now everyone is into social media. You can watch anything on YouTube, you don’t have to go outside! It’s cold out, or spend money on a babysitter, or I don’t feel like getting dressed up…Everything is moving so fast now. But if we just rewind a hundred years, how much trickier was it to get to the theater? It was much more of an effort than it is now, but people did it for the spiritual connection that they had. A real experience.
People think the internet is real. It’s not. You go to a live performance, and it forces you to be vulnerable – you sit in the dark where it is safe and just let go. Our generation needs to reconnect to these experiences, and we as artists must constantly find new ways of creating these beautiful experiences for them.