While performers from Taiwan can be found in contemporary ensembles worldwide, only a select few have ever danced with major ballet companies. David Mead caught up with the latest to join their ranks, Northern Ballet’s George Liang.
Leeds is a very long way from Taipei, and in many ways very different. Yet, says Taiwanese dancer George Liang (梁秩傑), who joined Northern Ballet last summer, it really does feel like a home. “It’s not like London, but in its way, it’s beautiful. It’s hard to explain but there’s something about the place. The move here is actually working out great.”
It seems to be working out fine on stage too. Northern Ballet’s size and repertory mean that dancers get lots of opportunities to perform. “I did guests at the party in every cast of The Nutcracker, the soldiers and the mice in the battle, the Russian and Chinese dances. There was a lot of dancing!” He also enjoyed appearing in artistic director David Nixon’s swashbuckling romp, The Three Musketeers. Coming up, he’s looking forward to taking on the role of Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, the eighth child and youngest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, in Cathy Marston’s forthcoming Victoria, which premieres in Leeds on March 9.
Taipei to Leeds was something of a roundabout journey. At elementary school, swimming was Laing’s forte. He was in the school team and often participated in competitions. “Even now, I still like to go for a swim occasionally to keep my body going; and it’s good for stamina.” These days, he also enjoys a relaxing soak in the jacuzzi that company has in its building. “It’s great to just relax the body.”
But he had a friend who had just started dance and his mother asked him if he would like to try it too. She took him to I-Shin Dance Studio (宜欣舞苑) in Sanchong, a suburb of Taipei. “From that day, it just sort of snowballed. I always loved moving. I can’t sit still.”
It’s common in Taiwan for dance students to study several dance styles, even in studios such as I-Shin that tend towards ballet. “It’s a bit insane but it does help the dancer develop different skills, I think. In our studio we did jazz, contemporary, Chinese and ballet – and improv – which is a lot. But I liked ballet the most.”
What he liked about ballet in particular was its discipline. “It’s very strict.” He was one of only two boys in the class, but as he admits, that meant “I always got attention. And I improved. And I think seeing that I improved made me want to keep going back and improve even more or better.”
His teachers at I-Shin speak warmly about him, remembering him as an excellent student, both in attitude and approach. “He began learning classical ballet at a later age and would push himself very hard to improve and progress his technique. He was always been a very hard-working student with a positive mindset towards learning and studying the art of ballet,” they said.
They also recalled his determination to broaden his skills by training overseas and how, on his return visits, he would always come to the studio and pass his knowledge onto the younger students. “George’s determination and generosity are aspects of his character that have been present since his youth and these traits have continued to develop and strengthen as he has matured.”
Rather than full-time dance schools for children, Taiwan has specialist dance classes embedded in a few regular schools. When it was time to move to secondary school, the now 12-year-old Liang joined that at Taipei’s Shuang Yuan Junior High School (雙園國中). But after just a few months he was auditioning and being accepted into Canada’s National Ballet School.
After two years in Toronto, Liang was accepted into the Elmhurst School of Dance, now Elmhurst Ballet School in Birmingham, but then he went to the Asian Grand Prix, a big competition in Hong Kong. Director of the New Zealand School of Dance in Wellington, Garry Trinder, spotted him and offered a full scholarship. “I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know where New Zealand was, or anything about the country. I was Googling it to find out,” says Liang. Family connections in Auckland helped sway the decision, Elmhurst’s loss proving to be very much the New Zealand School’s gain.
Becoming a professional dancer is a long way from taking classes in a local school, but Liang says his parents have always been extremely supportive in his choice of career. “I’m really grateful to them.” With his mother working for a semiconductor company and his father owning a small car maintenance business, neither had any previous connection with the arts. “But maybe it is healthier that way,” he says.
New Zealand was fabulous but very different, says Liang. Although a ballet major, students at the New Zealand School of Dance get to do a lot of contemporary dance too. “That opened up another door. Ballet and contemporary are now pretty much equal for me.”
In his final year in Wellington, Trinder suggested that Liang might like to compete in the Youth America Grand Prix in New York. While admitting it was a great opportunity, Liang says he never enjoyed competitions in general. “It’s far too stressful.” He also agrees that they should not only be about prepared solos. “Some people must work on them for at least a year. No wonder they are so good.”
“It’s crazy, insane,” says Liang of YAGP. “There are so many dancers and some can be very pushy. You have to grab the barre. You have to almost push people out of the way to establish your place and make sure you can be seen by the judge.”
He also recalls an important lesson on his first day in New York, when Trinder took him to Steps on Broadway to take ballet class. “Alessandra Ferri was in the class as well. Right in the middle and surrounded by less experienced dancers, but there she was. I was totally starstruck. Anyway, I was right at the back. I got scolded. Garry Trinder told me, ‘Do that at YAGP and you’ll get nothing. You have to step forward’.”
The next big step forward for Liang, was a return to Toronto where he took up an apprentice dancer position with the National Ballet of Canada, something of a dream company for him ever since he had performed with them as a child in The Nutcracker. “I had great memories. They are a great company. Getting a job as an apprentice was really kind of crazy.”
Canada was fabulous, says Liang but the reality is that there are simply not enough vacancies for every apprentice to get a full contract with the company. But an application and a video later, and he was offered a contract by Northern Ballet.
Northern Ballet tour lots, an experience Liang is embracing enthusiastically. “I really enjoy it because I’ve never been to any of the places that the company goes to before. We hop on the train and every time I arrive, I’m like a kid in a candy shop. It’s really cool. I try to explore the city and find good things to see.” Favourite cities so far include Newcastle and Nottingham, although he admits to be especially looking forward to seeing Edinburgh. “I’ve also been to London for a day trip. There’s just so much to see and I’m really excited about dancing at Sadler’s Wells in March.”
Liang hasn’t been with the company long enough to have a favourite role yet, or even one he would particularly like to dance. When asked about ballets more widely, there’s no hesitation, though. “I would love to do Onegin, either Onegin or Lenski, both have a lot of dancing and emotion and are big acting roles too.” When prompted for a classic, he immediately goes for Albrecht in Giselle. “And for more contemporary ballet, something by David Dawson or William Forsythe. Or for very contemporary, I’d love to work with Sidi Larbi Cherkouai or Goyo Montero. I love their works.”
Liang still gets back to Taiwan every summer. Despite there being no full-time company, he notes that ballet in the country is popular with students and story ballets especially are liked by audiences. “And there are a lot of competitions. Maybe if everyone could come together, we could do something for ballet in Taiwan, but it’s difficult.” Generous with his time, he sometimes teaches back at I-Shin Studio or Shuang Yuan Junior High School, where he is remembered fondly. “But usually I just practice by myself. I’m not really in the ballet circle in Taiwan. I don’t think many people in Taiwan know me.” If George Liang continues as he has started, that may soon change!
Northern Ballet’s Victoria by Cathy Marston premieres at the Grand Theatre, Leeds on March 9, where it runs to March 16. To book, visit leedsgrandtheatre.com.
Victoria is then on tour, including to Sadler’s Wells, London from March 26-30, 2019. For more details, all dates and venues, visit northernballet.com/victoria.