Chun Wai Chan talks about his journey from a small village in China to becoming the top male ballet dancer at one of the world’s most prestigious companies
For the first time in 74 years, New York City Ballet has promoted a soloist of Chinese descent as its principal dancer. Chun Wai Chan, 30, who was born in Guangdong and grew up between Hong Kong and Guangzhou, is the first Chinese and only fourth Asian dancer to sissone his way to the top spot.
A quick recap of his formidable career path vindicates why he’s worked for the honour: he was the principal dancer at Houston Ballet from 2017 and the guest principal with the Hong Kong Ballet in 2018 and 2019 before joining NYC Ballet in August 2021.
Six months into his promoted role, Tatler catches up with Chan ahead of NYC Ballet’s performance of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker in New York. He talks about the Christmas production, Asian representation in Western art, and going beyond gender stereotypes.
How does it feel to be the principal dancer at NYC Ballet?
It’s surreal. NYC Ballet is one of the biggest ballet companies in the world, and a lot of people have told me it’s great to see an Asian face onstage dancing in a leading role. In that sense, I feel that whatever I achieve, it’s not just a personal milestone, but also carving a path for other [people of colour].
Is it rare to have Asians in lead positions in US ballet companies?
Most companies in the US, including Houston Ballet, have had Chinese or Asian people as principal dancers before. But this is the first time for NYC Ballet to have a principal dancer who’s Chinese. There aren’t many Asian dancers who want to come here—I think it’s just the style of the company or the vision of the previous director [that didn't particularly encourage them to join]. The new management of this company sees diversity as an important vision. Once I joined, and then when I became the principal dancer, it gave so many young dancers hope of becoming lead dancer here.
Is the ballet industry inclusive?
I would say yes, because this art form suits everyone. Most cities in the world have a ballet company. In general, the industry is diverse.
The NYC Ballet has its own school, its own training system and style. It’s not that the company doesn’t hire people from China or Japan, but it mostly hires people from its own school, and the school is based in New York and most of its dancers live here.
I feel lucky to have joined the company. I grew up in China and trained in Houston. My background and training are mixed.
What is the difference between dancing at NYC Ballet and other companies?
When I was in Houston, there was more acting in the storytelling of a full-length classical ballet.
Here in NYC Ballet, it’s very dynamic. The musicality is very precise and everyone moves faster. The energy onstage is very “New York”: there’s a sense of freedom and liveliness that engages the audience. Sometimes we have smaller pieces which can be abstract. It’s more about the dancing [than storytelling].
How did you end up at the NYC Ballet?
In 2019, NYC Ballet’s advisor and resident choreographer, Justin Peck, did a piece with Houston Ballet. Back then, I was guesting with the Hong Kong Ballet and also dancing with Houston Ballet. I danced in Justin’s piece, and we enjoyed working together. I remember he said to me to get in touch with him if I ever wanted to go to another company. At that time, as guest dancer with the Hong Kong Ballet, it felt like a privilege to [be home] and show people what I had learnt in Houston—it was a freedom that I assumed I would not have with another company. So back then, I thanked him for the offer but said that I was happy with Houston.
But after Justin’s piece, I wanted to experience more of that musicality and sense of freedom in movements. So, I reached out to him again. A year later, in January 2020, NYC Ballet had an audition, and I came in to take classes. Originally, the company asked me to take two classes. But I thought if I were to come to New York all the way from Houston and China, I would want to show my true potential to the company and not just join it because of how well known it is. So, I asked to take classes for five days—it was the only way I could let them know who I was and to know if I liked the company too. I ended up taking classes for one month, and the company offered me a soloist contract.
That’s when I decided that I would join NYC Ballet. My parents also thought that I might be too comfortable in Houston. They encouraged me to challenge myself. Then, this year in May, I got promoted to principal.
Do you enjoy the city?
New York is a lot of fun. The food is very good. There are always events, parties and friends to visit. As member of the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community in New York, I also attend shows by my AAPI friends. Today, after my rehearsals, I went to see Beetlejuice on Broadway to support my friend Michael Bryan Wang. Of course, I love Broadway and I dream of performing there myself one day.
Speaking of supporting the AAPI community, has the NYC Ballet been doing anything in this regard?
Sometimes I look into the mirror and ask myself: am I in this company because of my race, or do I have to work harder [to prove that I was hired for my talent]? But I’m happy to see diversity onstage—the company has been making changes. The team reached out to me, hired and then promoted me. They want me to dance in different shows and have given me big roles.
The holiday staple The Nutcracker has been controversial for proliferating racial stereotypes. Has the NYC Ballet updated it?
Before I joined the company, there were changes in the Chinese costumes because it used to be very stereotypical with a moustache. Now it looks better.
After The Nutcracker, we have a new show in February 2023, which is inspired by the AAPI community. I’m working with Thai choreographer Keerati Jinakunwiphat and another Japanese dancer in the company. We’ll be telling a story of our vision. It’s very meaningful as we’re embracing diversity.
What piqued your interest in ballet in the first place?
At first, I didn’t pick ballet. I just loved dancing. I did Latin dance, as well as Chinese and Western folk dances. My first dance teacher suggested I join the ballet, as I always loved a challenge. She said ballet is very strict. It was very difficult to get into ballet schools [in China] because they measure how long your neck is, they care if you are flexible and ask about your parents’ height to predict if you’re going to be tall enough as a ballet dancer. But I passed the test. Along the way, I found ballet very challenging. It’s demanding on the human body, sometimes to impossible lengths, like your hip [joint] is not meant to pan out at 180 degrees, but I stuck with it.
Did your family approve of your hobby back then, before it became your career?
Originally, my grandparents and parents said no to my dream. I was 11 and I wrote a letter to my father, asking him to please let me go [study ballet abroad]. My parents thought I would change my mind in three months as ballet is so hard, but then they realised I badly wanted to be a ballet dancer. So, they came around, even though they loved me very much and wanted me to stay with them at home in Guizhou in China.
I left home to join a ballet school in Guangzhou at 12. I studied hard so I wouldn’t disappoint my parents. At 18, I entered Prix de Lausanne, a competition in Switzerland, where I was a finalist. I was offered a scholarship [and the option] to choose from nine ballet companies around the world for youth training. I picked Houston because at the competition, I met many dancers from Houston who showed a more contemporary style that I wanted to learn. I wasn’t thinking which city would be the most fun for me, but rather which company could offer me the most to learn as a dancer.
Has the perception of ballet changed from when you were young?
Ballet wasn’t a popular choice for boys back then. Before I went to Guangzhou, people asked my parents why they are letting their son dance. At that time, my parents supported me and I blocked off all negative comments. But now, things are changing, and more boys are willing to dance because they don’t feel ashamed. The audience is also getting used to seeing male dancers. Now, with my achievements and appearance on a television show, those same people back in my village ask my parents how they had the foresight to let their son dance from a young age.
What other changes would you like to see in the ballet industry?
I want people to embrace their own identities. If you love dancing and you’re good at it, or if you can make the audience enjoy your performance, you should dance, regardless of your body type, shape, skills and race.