A dancer’s journey

The lack of opportunities at home leads many ballet dancers overseas, a path that George Liang has followed

By David Mead  /  Contributing reporter

Wed, Jul 24, 2019 - Page 13

Taiwan has some of the best modern dance training in the world, and in Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (雲門舞集) it has one of its top companies. Even so, finding work as a professional dancer is not easy. The lack of full-time opportunities drives many to Europe in particular, where Taiwanese dancers can be found in many top companies.

For those aiming for a career in ballet like Taiwan’s George Liang (梁秩傑), who last summer took up his first fully professional contract with the 40-dancer strong Northern Ballet, one of the UK’s leading companies, things are even more difficult.

While the importance of ballet in all dance training is pretty much universally acknowledged, there comes a point where the best ballet talent has nowhere to go; and it comes early. Ballet dancers need to be in specialized full-time training by age 16 at the latest, and have a full-time contract with a company by the time they are 19. The university system, not graduating until age 22, simply does not work for them.

ACHIEVING SUCCESS ABROAD

Liang is not the first Taiwanese ballet dancer to join the ranks of a major company. Right now, there’s also Chou Tzu-chao (周子超), a principal dancer at Birmingham Royal Ballet in England; and Liang Shih-huai (梁世懷), soloist with Universal Ballet in South Korea. What all have in common is that they had to move abroad to achieve their dreams.

For Liang, Taipei to Leeds in the north of England was a roundabout journey. He started dancing when his mother took him to I-Shin Dance Studio (宜欣舞苑) in New Taipei City’s Sanchong District (三重).

“From that day, it just sort of snowballed. I always loved moving. I can’t sit still,” Liang says.

There, he studied jazz, contemporary, Chinese dance and improvisation as well as ballet.

“It’s a bit insane but it does help you develop different skills,” he says. Ballet was always his favorite, though. Only one of two boys in the class, “I always got attention.”

His teachers at I-Shin speak warmly about him, remembering him as hard-working and always pushing himself to improve.

Aged 12, Liang was accepted into the specialist dance class at Taipei’s Shuang Yuan Junior High School (雙園國中), but with ballet always the dream, just a few months later he auditioned for and was accepted into Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto.

Two years later, after being spotted in a competition in Hong Kong, he was offered a full scholarship at the New Zealand School of Dance. Ballet training is expensive, so it was a difficult offer to refuse, although he jokes, “I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know where New Zealand was, or anything about the country. I was Googling to find out.”

Ballet is art, but it is also a very competitive profession. Opportunities are few and you have to make sure you are seen; a lesson he learned when in New York to take part in the Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP), the world’s largest ballet competition.

Before competing, Garry Trinder, director of his school in Auckland, took him to Steps on Broadway, one of New York’s top studios to take class.

“Former American Ballet Theatre ballerina Alessandra Ferri was in the class as well. I was totally starstruck. I was right at the back. I got scolded. Garry told me, ‘Do that at YAGP and you’ll get nothing. You have to step forward,’” Liang says.

He was absolutely correct, Liang says. “Competitions in general are incredibly stressful, but YAGP is insane. There are so many dancers and some can be very pushy. You do have to almost push people out of the way to get your place and make sure you can be seen.”

GLOBETROTTER

After graduating in New Zealand, Liang 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. Canada was fabulous, he says but the reality is that there are simply not enough vacancies for every apprentice to get a full contract with the company. However, an application and a video later, and he was offered a contract by Northern Ballet.

Leeds, an industrial city, is a very long way from Taipei, and very different. Yet, it really does feel like a home.

“In its way, it’s beautiful. It’s hard to explain but there’s something about the place. The move here is working out great,” Liang says.

It’s working out fine on stage too. Northern Ballet perform around 24 weeks each year, touring all over the UK, with up to seven performances each of those weeks. That means there’s a lot of opportunities to perform. This year, Liang has danced in The Nutcracker, the historical drama, Victoria, and in The Great Gatsby, where he played a shy boy among other characters, “A role I can really relate to. There’s always a lot to do but it can be hard and people do get stressed.”

On top of that are around 80 performances annually of children’s ballets. This spring was made even crazier than usual for Liang when he had to learn several roles in a new production of Puss in Boots, alongside other rehearsals.

“The ballet is quite jazzy, and while it’s really for kids, who absolutely love it, there is lots in it for adults too,” he says.

“Taiwan doesn’t have this kind of ballet. We have just a few dancers and sets that are easy to shift. We do two or three shows through the day at each venue, then move on to the next city. This sort of show is really important because it introduces youngsters to ballet in a friendly, welcoming, accessible way; often their parents too. It gets them in the theater. And it’s cheap!” he says.

The dream now is of bigger roles. Liang may be busy but still gets back to Taiwan every summer. Generous with his time, he does a little teaching, including back at this former schools, where who knows, he might just inspire others to follow in his footsteps.