There couldn’t be a timelier production than Hong Kong Ballet’s season-opening Swan Lake. Edmund Lee talks to principal dancer Jin Yao about this punishing role.
Reluctantly but not without a veiled sense of pride, Jin Yao’s parents – both principal dancers in their day – realised their nine-year-old daughter was only ever going to be a professional ballerina. That was 22 years ago, when the little girl discovered the dance school entry forms that had been hidden away by her family. “Being a dancer is what I wanted all along,” says Jin, recalling how her young self – wrapped in window curtains – spontaneously did a very difficult twirl at home after watching her dancing teacher mother at work. Jin would graduate from Beijing Dance Academy and join the National Ballet of China in 1997, before being promoted to principal dancer in 2003, after winning a Gold Medal at the Varna International Ballet Competition in the previous year.
Currently the principal dancer of the Hong Kong Ballet – as well as the face of all the promotional posters of its upcoming production of the all-time classic Swan Lake – Jin will next be seen at two of the performances embodying the coveted role of Odette/Odile opposite Robert Curran, principal of The Australian Ballet, who plays Prince Siegfried. Before that, she took time to talk to Time Out amid the company’s 10am-6pm rehearsal schedule.
The recent public interest in ballet was no doubt partially piqued by the movie Black Swan. What are your thoughts on that movie?
I think the ballet world and the horror movie world make for a very inaccurate parallel. [Laughs] If the ballet world was really as it is in the movie, we’d all be dead by now, because nobody could stay very long in the field. The movie has taken a romanticised view, and the director has vastly exaggerated a lot of aspects to attract an audience. The only good thing about this movie is that many people want to know more about the ballet world after seeing it, so it’s good for our box office. [Laughs] In our world, we have competition – like for the role of Swan Queen. But we compete by learning from others, not by tripping up one another. As dancers, we support each other. You’ll never feel lonely because you’re in a big family.
Do you feel the pressure of being the company’s heavily promoted principal dancer?
I did feel the pressure at first – but not like it’s portrayed in the movie. Of course, you can’t promote someone to be the principal and immediately turn all the promotional focus on her, because it would give her immense pressure. It takes time to mature. The company is careful not to overburden its dancers. If they’d put me on all the promotional materials when I first became the principal, I might not have performed to standard.
Do you have any favourite dancers?
Yes. For example, I like Alina Cojocaru at The Royal Ballet [of London], and [Natalia] Makarova, the star ballerina from Russia. Makarova was like my role model when I started out; she didn’t only have very good techniques, but was also very impressive in her artistic expression.
Personally speaking, do you prefer classical or contemporary ballet?
I like both. I think contemporary works are easier to dance than classical ones, because [the former] are less technically demanding. On the other hand, classical ballets can expose your technical level almost instantly.
What has been the hardest ballet for you to master?
Swan Lake. [Chuckles] Also, [George] Balanchine’s Theme and Variations.
Do you remember the first time you danced the dual role of Odette/Odile?
It was in 2004, when I danced in the version by Stephen Jefferies [then-artistic director of Hong Kong Ballet]. I was extremely excited to dance the part – it’s the dream of every principal to dance in Swan Lake at least once.
So which part do you enjoy more: Odette or Odile?
I enjoy both parts, to be honest, because the two are so different. I think to be a good dancer, you must be able to play any role competently. [Odette and Odile] have totally different personalities, and I really like the challenge of taking on these dramatic roles.
Has your Odette/Odile developed over the years?
I think [my performance] takes on a different form every time. Swan Lake presents a great challenge to the principal ballerina – and not just in terms of its technical demands. You must let the music flow spontaneously with your body, and this can’t be achieved when you’re only dancing the part for the first or second time. It takes several years of practice. I feel really differently when I dance the role this time, because I can now feel my body melting into the music.
Swan Lake is at Cultural Centre’s Grand Theatre August 19-21. Tickets: 2734 9009; www.urbtix.hk.