For the second in our occasional series, the Birmingham Royal Ballet principal dancer chooses his seven works that have particular significance, saying a few words about each.
Born in Yilan in the north-east of Taiwan, Tzu-chao Chou (周子超) was very active as a child. When he was nine, his parents thought that dance lessons would be a good way of instilling some discipline and channelling some of his seemingly limitless energy in a constructive way, and enrolled him in classes at the local Lan Yang Youth Catholic Center, home to the noted Lan Yang Dance Troupe (蘭陽舞蹈團). His first lessons were in Chinese dance. He remembers being almost put off by all the stretching. In his initial assessment, he was asked to do a backbend. “You know, it was so hard. My body was so stiff. I was crying,” he once told me.
The switch to ballet came when he stopped to watch a class at Lan Yang being taught by a visiting male Russian teacher from the Vaganova School in St. Petersburg. Seeing the students leaping and pirouetting, he says he thought, “That’s more like it.” When the teacher asked him to join the class, he did not take any persuading.
Tzu-chao soon needed more than Taiwan could offer and moved to study at The Australian Ballet School in Melbourne before joining the company in 2005, where major roles included Franz in Dame Peggy Van Praagh’s Coppélia and Kostchei in Graeme Murphy’s Firebird.
Ready to spread his wings, he switched to Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2011, becoming principal dancer in 2017. Known for his remarkable speed, flexibility and strength, his incredible jumps and turns, and his very sunny outlook on life, he very quickly became, and remains, an audience favourite.
As he prepares to dance Prince Florimund in Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty, and in his own words, here are Tzu-chao’s seven ballets:
It was always a dream of mine to play Siegfried and as a child I remember watching the DVD of Sir Anthony Dowell and Natalia Makarova; two amazing artists, who inspired me to become a professional ballet dancer! I was lucky enough to debut the role last year in Sir Peter Wright’s version. My childhood memories came flooding back and I absolutely loved every second on stage!
Sir Peter’s version really sets the scene well. As Siegfried, it allows me to tell the story from the very beginning ‘til the curtain falls. Nothing is more powerful when dance and music join together as one, and his choreography and attention to detail marries perfectly with Tchaikovsky’s beautiful score. It was wonderful to be part of creating that magic on stage. I was so grateful to share my debut with Beatrice Parma as my Swan Queen! I think with certain roles your dance partner is absolutely crucial, not just physically, but most importantly the emotional connection you share from the studio to the stage.
I will always remember these beautiful memories. My childhood dream has now been realised! Swan Lake will always have a special place in my heart.
The Merry Widow (Ronald Hynd)
With its beautiful music by Franz Lehár (adapted by John Lanchbery and Alan Abbott), Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow is a wonderful ballet full of romance and laughter. It holds special and emotional memories for me, as it was my farewell performance with The Australian Ballet before I moved to Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2011.
It was such a pleasure to dance Camille alongside Reiko Hombo as my Valencienne. I have such fond memories being coached by my wonderful former director David McAllister. David was always such a great support and teacher who had an amazing capacity to help us enhance our technique and most importantly bring the story to life.
The Merry Widow is all about love and romance, a real feel good ballet! One that leaves a warm smile on audiences faces ,as they walk away from a night out at the theatre.
Concerto (Sir Kenneth MacMillan)
Concerto, is an absolute classic. The first time I came across the ballet was in 2011 at The Australian Ballet, then again here with BRB in 2017. In my eyes, it is definitely one of the ‘WOW’ ballets and Dmitri Shostakovich’s music is just crème de la crème.
I perform the first movement principal couple. The ballet starts with my partner and I standing in the centre of the stage in croisé position. Waiting for the curtain reveal fills you with such excitement and anticipation; one, that in my experience, matches no other! When that curtain rises you know you are ready to dance your heart out! I will never forget the year that we celebrated MacMillan’s work at the Royal Opera house in 2017. It was a special moment with my incredible partner Momoko Hirata. As if that memory wasn’t great enough it also coincided with me being promoted to principal, and indeed was the first ballet I performed after that promotion. It holds very happy memories that I will treasure for ever.
Symphonic Variations (Sir Frederick Ashton)
Another British classic, this time to music by César Franck. Symphonic Variations was my first ever Ashton ballet and also one of my first ballets with BRB. I was privileged to dance the lead male. Probably one of the hardest ballets I’ve performed to date, it requires strong technique and stamina from start to finish.
It really is a feast to the eyes. With all three couples on stage for the entirety of the ballet’s twenty minutes, it really pushes your physical and mental reserves to the extreme. During performances, you can hear a pin drop as the audience are captivated by what is brilliant choreography and stunning music from start to finish. At the end, you get a real sense of elation and achievement. Definitely one of the highlights of my career.
La fille mal gardée (Sir Frederick Ashton)
What’s not to love about this comedic three-act ballet by Ashton. I’ve been lucky enough to have played Colas as well as Alain. They are both such fun roles to do.
What I love about Fille is you don’t need to try hard to tell the story or be extra funny as Ashton has already done that work for you. The comedy comes from his brilliant choreography and the great detail of each character.
I really enjoyed playing Colas as I feel he is a bit like me in real life: a happy go lucky guy who is always positive and doesn’t take life too seriously. That was my very first Ashton full length role and nothing is more fun when you can just play yourself on stage. It’s something I will always cherish.
Interlinked (Juliano Nunes)
It was amazing to be able to work with Juliano on his brand new one-act work created in 2022 to music by Luke Howard. I was so inspired by his energy and talent, and especially by his unique approach to movement and choreography. I remember he always used to say, “It’s all about the feeling,” something that has stayed with me as I couldn’t agree with him more.
For me, displaying emotion is really important and central to any performance and its artistry. Juliano guided me to dance freely and develop my trust; so much so that I even closed my eyes while I was dancing in a duet. To be able to do that is an amazing feeling. I also got to create a duet with one of my dearest friends, Brandon Lawrence, which was very special to me.
We recently toured Interlinked to New York, the response from the audience was incredible! Another career highlight.
Don Quixote (Carlos Acosta)
Don Quixote is one of the great classics. To me, it’s a vibrant feel good ballet with high energy and that allows the entire cast to showcase virtuoso performances. I had the pleasure to dance Basilio, a character so full of passion and love!
Again, I got to share this role with my amazing partner Beatrice Parma, a perfect Kitri, so strong, fun and loving at the same time. We had a blast from the moment we stepped on stage! But Carlos’ new Birmingham production was made extra special by having the role of Cupid-Amore reworked for me. In most versions, this role is played by a female but Carlos made Amor a male. It’s rare to get an original role recreated on you in a classic. I was very honoured.