Chun Wing Lam (林雋永) is a dancer at the Paris Opera Ballet. For a company which admits few foreigners and guards its vaunted traditions jealously, this Hongkonger in Paris is not just an exception; he is, in fact, the first Chinese dancer at the Paris Opera. He talks to Joy Wang X.Y.
As he will tell you, Chun Wing is still at the beginning of his career. But he has already garnered positive notices for his dancing. His performances at the annual promotion competition were noted as being stylish and quietly elegant with épaulement that was especially impressive. ‘One to watch’ was the verdict.
Chun Wing started his dance training at Hong Kong’s Jean M Wong School of Ballet (王仁曼芭蕾舞學校) but he says, “In fact, piano playing was my first passion when I was small. I asked my mother to let me learn to play the piano when I was five. Eventually, she wanted to find an extra-curricula activity that combined musicality and physical activity. Since dancing was once her passion, she had the idea to take me to ballet.”
He remembers that first trial ballet class at the Jean M. Wong School. “When I arrived at the ballet school, I was very scared because I could only see little girls in pink tutus. I started to wonder what I was going to do in that studio among the girls. I started crying, and continued for a long time, 30 minutes I guess. But thanks to my mother’s insistence and the pushing of the annoyed secretary, Miss Ko, I finally went into the studio 15 minutes before the end of the class. Much to my surprise, I enjoyed it very much and asked my mother to enrol me in regular classes there.”
By the time he was 12, Chun Wing was seriously passionate about ballet and realised the he needed full-time training if he was to pursue his dancing professionally. “I chose to enter the Paris Opera Ballet School because it has the longest history and I like the French style of ballet the most.”
Chun Wing left for Paris when he was 14 and admits it was an extremely difficult move. “I had to learn a new language, adapt to a new environment, learn to take care of myself and take up different responsibilities. The professional training there was much tougher than what I was used to in Hong Kong too; and, of course, there was the homesickness to overcome.
At the end of training at the Paris Opera Ballet School, Chun Wing explains that the graduating students take part in the Concours d’Entrée, an audition reserved for students of the school who wish to enter the company. He took part in 2015, a particularly fine year for male dancers that saw three engaged, along with one female.
“When I started dancing with the company I felt the difference from dancing as a student immediately. I realised that I had to work my body very differently. I learnt a lot very quickly, although as the company uses more or less the same system as the school, the transition from student to professional happened quite smoothly and comfortably for me.
The Paris Opera Ballet is noted for still employing mostly home-grown dancers. Chun Wing is one of the few foreigners, let alone Asians, in the company but says “Being one of the few Asians in this prestigious company is first of all a privilege and an honour. Of course, sometimes it feels strange to be different, but I wouldn’t say it is hard.
Chun Wing describes the French style of dancing as “very refined, subtle and elegant. It aims more to move the audience than to impress them. Technically speaking, the French dancers work for a polished and clean skills. Artistry and the quality of the dancing are very important.”
For some time, Chun Wing has kept a blog in which he details his day to day thoughts and experiences in the French capital. “I keep the blog because I always enjoy writing. It is mostly for myself. I would like to keep a memory of my daily life right now because I treasure it so much. I think that I live a very special life with the Paris Opera Ballet, and that people may be interested in what goes on inside the company and what I explore in the beautiful city of Paris.
Chun Wing recently danced a solo part in William Forsythe’s Herman Schmerman, his performances causing local critics to enthuse about his power and lightness, speed of jumps, and the precision of arms. Although he had done some others while a student at the Paris Opera Ballet school, this was his first solo role on the stage of the Palais Garnier as a member of the company.
“It was a great opportunity for me because I am still ranked quadrille (corps de ballet) in the hierarchy of the company. It was also my first Forsythe ballet, I learnt a lot from the new style of dancing which I love. I only did three performances, so each one seemed quite precious. Dancing something extremely difficult alone on the huge stage of Garnier is rather stressful yet so rewarding. I feel extremely grateful for these three performances: I performed a solo on one of the most famous ballet stages in a piece that I love, and the audience seemed to appreciate my dancing. What more could I ask for?”
An earlier highlight in Chun Wing’s career came while still a student when he replaced a dancer in a sujét (soloist) role in Jean-Guillaume Bart’s La Source, a ballet about a beautiful water sprite who falls in love with a mortal man, but whose love leads to her death.
“In fact, the company called several students from the school to be understudies for two ballets in December 2014: La Source and Nutcracker. I was the only one who was understudying in La Source. Dancing one of the Elves is difficult. There is a lot of tricky petite batterie and a lot of dancers got injured rehearsing it. One week before the first performance, I was asked to start learning this challenging role by myself since there were no more rehearsals for this role. Very motivated and wanting to seize this opportunity to prove my capabilities, I learnt the whole thing in one night by watching a DVD. Perhaps the ballet masters recognised my hard work because I got to dance the role several times. I was overjoyed. Every bit of the experience was magical.”
There is so much talk today about representation, race and diversity in ballet companies. Being one of the few non-Europeans in the Paris Opera Ballet gives Chun Wing a particular insight into the issues. He says, “First of all, I think the discussions about the use of dancers of different race or nationality are centred on classical productions. In contemporary or modern dance companies, I don’t think the question is relevant. Indeed, most or all of the contemporary companies include dancers of all races. Given that classical ballet comes from the French King Louis XIV and that it is purely a Western or European art form, it is evident that this subject deserves discussion. I totally understand why the company may prefer putting me in a contemporary production (like Herman Schmerman) than casting me as a Prince in a classical ballet. It is done for artistic reasons and representativeness. However, in modern society, where racism and human rights are sensitive subjects, I do think ballet companies should be promoting their diversity of nationalities.
Chun Wing says he doesn’t have any defined plans for the far future, although he says that he would like to teach at some point. More immediately, he would like to be promoted at the Paris Opera, which will give him more opportunities on stage. “As long as my body lets me dance, I just want to make the best of it and my dancing career.”
For more of Chun Wing Lam’s thoughts on dancing and life, visit his blog (in English) at http://lamchunwing.weebly.com.