Here's How a Hong Kong Ballet Principal Dancer Stays Performance Ready
Shen Jie is one of the most recognisable stars at the Hong Kong Ballet. He was the Blue Bird in Cynthia Harvey’s The Sleeping Beauty in 2010. Now he’s the prince in the rerun of the production which is taking place from October 14 to 17.
The principal dancer, who is originally from Zhejiang, came to Hong Kong for the first time in 2004 as one of eight students selected to perform at the Jean M. Wong School of Ballet summer camp. Three years later, he joined the Hong Kong Ballet, was promoted to be a soloist in 2013, and became a principal dancer in 2016. During his time with the company, he has performed many major roles, including Romeo in Septime Webre’s new Romeo + Juliet this summer, and won Outstanding Performance by a Male Dancer at the 2016 and 2019 Hong Kong Dance Awards.
Shen will play Prince Désiré on October 17 in The Sleeping Beauty, and will take part in a brand new rendition of The Nutcracker in December.
We asked the ballet star to share with us what he does every day to keep himself performance ready.
I wake up to a very soft ringtone on my phone so that it doesn’t wake my child. I like doing some gentle stretching exercises on the bed for five minutes before I start my day. My muscles are usually sore in the morning after rehearsals and performances the evening before. I like hugging my legs to my chest and rolling back and forth to massage my back. Once I got up too suddenly which caused a spasm in my back. Since then I’m very cautious and make sure I warm up as long as I’m not late for work.
I like a healthy breakfast but I don’t go for a protein-based diet in particular. I make my own breakfast at home, which consists of bread, oats, soy milk and eggs. I add cheese and butter to my bread. I actually don’t particularly like cheese, but I feel like it sates my hunger and it’s nutritious.
I live in Yuen Long; it takes around 45 minutes to get to the Cultural Centre. I usually arrive in Tsim Sha Tsui at 9am and spend the next 15 to 30 minutes warming up and doing core exercises before our first ballet class at 9.30am. The 1.5-hour class is crucial for a ballet dancer as it prepares you for the rehearsals throughout the day.
We take a break for 15 minutes before we start the rehearsal, which runs until 2pm. We wear ballet jerseys, which are different from most sportswear: they are tight-fitting, so that you can show your body shape more clearly. I wear Yumiko, an international professional dancewear brand that knows what a ballet dancer needs. On top of our jerseys, we put on a coat to keep our muscles warm.
Lunch depends on what I’m rehearsing. I only eat very little–say a sandwich or a salad—if I have an intense rehearsal,. It doesn’t feel great if you eat a full meal and suffer from indigestion while you dance. As a dancer, I sweat a lot and need to replenish my protein. I snack on fruits, Pocari, an egg or protein shakes during my practice to prevent muscle spasms.
We return to the studio and practise until 6pm. Every day, we have a different routine based on what we’ll be performing. We take a 5- to 10-minute break every hour, and there are three different studios for practising different parts: solos, pas de deux or group dances.
In The Sleeping Beauty, I play the prince, who wakes the princess with a kiss. Although the classic story is mainly about the princess, the male dancer is equally important. He plays an important role in helping the female dancer complete her moves. He isn’t only an athlete but also a storyteller. My job is to make her “more beautiful” by helping her pose in mid-air.
This is when we get off if there aren’t evening shows. Ever since my child was born, I hurry home for dinner to enjoy family time after my meal. I live with my family and they cook Chinese family dishes. I’m lucky to have a child; she calms me, and spending time with her brings me joy. After she goes to bed, I’ll do stretching exercises, and ice massage my sore muscles.
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On the day of a performance, of course, I’ll stay longer. (We also start our day later because our working hours are longer.) Performances usually start at 7.30pm and last until 10.30pm.
By the time I get home after a show, it’s almost midnight. I’m so tempted to just jump into bed, but not before some quick stretching exercises. I’ve learnt my lesson: it will be a painful performance the next day if I’m lazy.