Looking back, looking forwards with Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Chi Cao

The recently retired principal dancer talks to David Mead about 23 years in Birmingham, that partnership with Nao Sakuma, and plans for the future

“I think it’s the right time. I’ve been very lucky and I’m very grateful that I’ve been able to do everything that I wanted to do when I was a kid. All the boxes have been ticked,” says Birmingham Royal Ballet principal dancer Chi Cao, reflecting on his stage career that closed at the end of June this year.

Chi joined Birmingham Royal Ballet in 1995. Twenty-three years is a long time with one company, he agrees, but says, “Every time I thought maybe it was time to move, something really good happened to me here. And David Bintley gave me the freedom to guest around the world, to work with different people, different companies, always changing the scenery.”

Chi Cao in classPhoto Andrew Ross
Chi Cao in class
Photo Andrew Ross

It was always likely Chi would find a career in ballet given his father was a ballet teacher and director at the Beijing Dance Academy, China’s premier dance training school. His mother, a musician, would have preferred that he play music but Chi says, “I couldn’t sit still.” Professional dance students in China do much less academic work than regular students, which also appealed. “When they asked me if I wanted to try, I thought, why not. I could jump around the whole day doing something I thought I would love.”

Chi arrived in Birmingham the same year as Nao Sakuma, with whom he always had a special stage chemistry. “We were the bunheads. We really were. We had been in the same class at the Royal Ballet School, and when we first joined the company, we would practice pas de deux together in our spare time although we were still only in the corps. Then, David Bintley paired us up in The Nutcracker in 1998. That’s how the whole thing started.”

Echoing Nao’s thoughts (click here), he explains how their way of moving and musicality is very similar but, “A lot of it was to do with the fact that we danced so long together. I didn’t have to think what she was going to do because I knew what she was going to do.” Even if I closed my eyes, I would knew just how far she would step out. We had a lot of trust in each other. It was definitely a partnership.”

Nao Sakuma as Juliet and Chi Cao as RomeoPhoto Andrew Ross
Nao Sakuma as Juliet and Chi Cao as Romeo
Photo Andrew Ross

Chi’s last performance was with Nao in Romeo and Juliet at the Birmingham Hippodrome. It’s an emotionally-laden ballet even without everything that surrounded that evening. Speaking on the eve of the performance, Chi said he was trying not to think about it. “I’m there to give a performance. I want to give the audience something they remember and take back home. If I have so much emotion coming through that I can’t control it, it will ruin the show.” He said that he had been asked if he wanted to change anything for this one occasion. “Absolutely not. It’s should be what it is meant to be, the steps what they are meant to be, the emotion what it’s meant to be.”

Laughing, he added, “But I’m sure the emotion will come. The problem will be trying to control it.” He said he had been thinking about the moment when he turns round in the ballroom and sees Juliet for the first time. Except that this will also be the last time that happens. “It brought tears to my eyes. But I can’t let that happen in the show. It’s the wrong script!”

Chi Cao in rehearsal for The Moor's PavanePhoto Andrew Ross
Chi Cao in rehearsal for The Moor’s Pavane
Photo Andrew Ross

Looking to the future, Chi explains that he is studying strength and conditioning, which he has found very beneficial in extending his career. “Six years ago, I had quite a bad injury and then there’s aging. I was always very explosive. A lot of my technique comes from power and when you are getting older, it goes. I found I couldn’t do a lot of things the way I used.”

In stepped former BRB dancer, Jamie Bond, now assistant strength and conditioning coach and sports scientist at Manchester City Football Club’s academy. When Bond started studying about six years ago, Chi became a client-subject for his course. “I never believed in cross-training but I found it really helpful, and I’ve been doing it ever since. It might not have given me my power back, but I have a better understanding of my body and how to use all of it efficiently to make something happen.”

Long-term, Chi wants to use similar ideas to help dancers. “Strength and conditioning is very important but we have to train in a very different way to athletes. All they have to do is beat the clock or whatever. We have to think about line.” Chi is keen to take the ideas back to Asia, and to set up a training and rehab facility for the National Ballet of China as part of a new facility they are developing.

Chi Cao in Ashton's Les RendezvousPhoto Bill Cooper
Chi Cao in Ashton’s Les Rendezvous
Photo Bill Cooper

He explains, “We are very fortunate at BRB. We have a team that might come from a sport background, but they are very advanced. We get a lot of nutrition and treatment tips, and to work with an amazing strength and conditioning coach. “But when I go back to China and explain to the young dancers in the company, they have no idea what you are talking about. Even the simplest things. Keep drinking water. Rehydrate yourself. Eat something to keep your muscles fed. Then they wonder why they are so tired. So, there’s a long way to go. They have acupuncture, which is great, but your body is a machine. You have to feed it the right fuel otherwise even the best mechanics cannot fix it. I would like to help them to understand more, so hopefully the dancers can dance longer, and when they get injured they can come back healthier.”

Chi would also like to see more Chinese dancers follow him and reach the very top ranks of companies. He’s been involved with the Prix de Lausanne quite a bit, presenting coverage for a Chinese channel. “I see lots of Japanese and Korean dancers doing well. Not only that, if you look in big companies around the world, it’s always Korean or Japanese dancers who are dancing at the top level. Chinese? There a lot of Chinese dancers but they never really quite get there. Just think how many ballet students graduate each year. I think we can do better, I really do.”

Nao Sakuma as Odette with Chi Cao as Prince Siegfried in Swan Lakephoto Bill Cooper
Chi Cao as Prince Siegfried with Nao Sakuma as Odette in Swan Lake
Photo Bill Cooper

Chi freely admits that his favourite roles have been in the classics. “I did Giselle with the National Ballet of China in April and it still feels really rewarding. A lot of people find contemporary works easier as the body gets older, but for me, the classical ones actually hurt my body less. Plus, I’m not very good with a lot of modern creations. My body just doesn’t move that way. I’ve got a natural, classical look, and that’s what I’m most comfortable with.”

While he doesn’t have a favourite classic, he admits to preferring Swan Lake over Sleeping Beauty, partly because Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production gives Siegfried has a little bit more depth, a reason for the emotion he has. Also a magnificent Albrecht in Giselle, he says he prefers the sad-ending stories to the happy ones. “It’s my personality. I’m actually quite a sensitive person. It’s the happy ‘jack-the-lad’ characters, that I find really, really hard, like Colas in La Fille mal gardée or Franz in Coppélia. That he remained convincing in those roles speaks volumes for his fine acting. Many will also recall his foppish moustache-twirling Hortensio, a vision in purple and turquoise in The Taming of the Shrew and his great portrayal of Fred Beanstock in Hobson’s Choice.

Chi Cao in The NutcrackerPhoto Steve Hanson
Chi Cao in The Nutcracker
Photo Steve Hanson

Of the more technically challenging roles he cites Romeo and Juliet. “My turns, my big jumps are my strong side. I’m not so good with the small, fast stuff, even though I’m quite small. In Romeo and Juliet, all the solos have very small steps, a lot of en dedans turns to my bad side. When I first did it, it was really challenging, but over the years I’ve done it enough to feel comfortable.”

When asked to pick out a couple of career highlights, Chi might be expected to go for winning the gold medal at Varna in 1998, or perhaps starring in the film, Mao’s Last Dancer, in which he played Li Cunxin, one of the first students from the Beijing Dance Academy to go to the United States to train, and who later defected to the West. Instead, he opts for a performance of Balanchine’s Tarantella, in 2003 as part of Genée competition final at the Birmingham Hippodrome. “I went on stage and I felt like I was possessed. I always struggled with the very quick steps and I was really worried about not giving a good performance, but that day I was so high. It is very fast anyway, and the recording we used was fast too. But it was like a ballet god was in my body. I was possessed. I loved it. When I went off stage, I couldn’t remember what I did. It was a blur, like time lost.”

Something similar happened for one of the shows in Romeo and Juliet and one in Nutcracker, continues. “I was so in the character, everything just flowed. When I walked off stage, it was almost as if I was dreaming. But that Tarantella, that was something I will probably remember for the rest of my life.”

Chi Cao with Nao Sakuma in The Sleeping BeautyPhoto Roy Smiljanic
Chi Cao with Nao Sakuma in The Sleeping Beauty
Photo Roy Smiljanic

Chi reveals that he thought about retiring from dancing after Mao’s Last Dancer to pursue a career as an actor. “But I felt I was not done with ballet; until now really. This year, I really started to feel for the first time that things were declining. The technique still works, but my legs get tired a lot quicker. I can train, train, train, but really there’s nothing I can do. So, I know it’s time to stop. I love the art so much and it’s not fair on the company or the audience for me to put a mediocre performance on when there are young ones who are hungry and who want to do a role. Ballet takes a lot of discipline and I’m not sure if I have it any more. The motivation’s gone but I am so happy to have achieved everything I wanted to do. It’s time to move on.

Are there roles he would liked to have done? “I would like to have done more Bournonville,” he says. “I love the way Bournonville dancers move. In terms of big ballets, there’s only one I would love to have done that I haven’t, La Bayadère. But you can’t have everything.”

Chi leaves Birmingham audiences especially with many happy memories, but there’s likely to be one last chance to see him in action, on-line at least. In the week before his retirement, he was followed around by an independent film-maker from China for a behind-the-scenes documentary, likely to be shown on the internet at some stage. “Ballet is very popular in China right now, and he wants to educate audiences about the life of a dancer and show there’s a lot more to it than just being on stage.”

Looking back, Chi says, “It’s been a pleasure.”. “I’m very grateful. Not a lot of dancers can say they have absolutely no regrets in their career, but I have absolutely none. Everything I wanted to do, I’ve done. Everyone I wanted to meet, I’ve met them, I’ve worked with them. I have been truly blessed.”