2 November 2008
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In the Spotlight - Guangchen Fu (Extended)
At age twenty-two, a highly trained dancer like Guangchen is usually working hard to make their mark as a dancer. But Guangchen Fu's story is quite different compared with most other dancers. As part of West Australian Ballet's Young Artist program, Guangchen joined the Company earlier this year not as a dancer but rather as Assistant Ballet Master. The incredible twists and turns that led Guangchen to his current position are remarkable in themselves, but they also reveal much about this young artist's resolve and strength of character.
Guangchen was born in Dalian, one of the most heavily developed industrial areas in China today. At age eleven, Guangchen was considered worthy of a position at the Ballet School of Liaoning Ballet in Schenyang, China. The School is allied with Liaoning Ballet, and has over 500 students. Unlike Russian dance schools, where the State covers all expenses, Guangchen's parents would have to cover the cost of his six-years of training.
While his father was a little cool about the whole affair, Guangchen's mother was very positive about the offer. "My mother explained to me that it's a very special chance, because they came to choose me", recalls Guangchen. So despite harbouring some fears about joining the School, Guangchen chose to follow his mother's advice.
Guangchen's first year at Liaoning Ballet School did little to dispel his fears, and by the end of his first semester he had only managed to achieve the lowest mark in his class.
The first years of school at the Liaoning School are designed to literally mould the young student's bodies, so training concentrates predominantly on stretching and muscle development. Unfortunately, Guangchen was the least flexible student in his class, which meant that he received special attention from his teachers. "While everyone is sitting with their legs in split position, my teacher comes and sits on me," says Guangchen. "Some other students were not that flexible, but better than me, and they were always crying because the teacher had to sit on them and push so hard. I never cried". Determined to improve, Guangchen worked hard enough to attain the third highest mark in the class by the end of second semester.
Even without teachers pushing students beyond their limits, the ballet school's schedule was hectic. Each student was expected to rise early and stretch for an hour or so before breakfast. After breakfast the students went to their daily dance class that lasted for one and a half hours. The rest of Guangchen's day consisted of alternating between dance and academic classes. The students also have an hour of "free time" to spend perfecting their technique or, if a student is in their final years, practicing steps for an upcoming performance with Liaoning Ballet.
Despite Guangchen's workload, he says that during his six years of training he never had to visit a hospital, physiotherapist, or masseur. In fact, he says that he only ever missed one class, and only ever sustained one injury, to his knee, and that this cleared up all by itself. Asked whether students are encouraged to work through their injuries at Liaoning Ballet School, Guangchen replies, "Most Chinese teachers suggest that you don't miss class. The Chinese people have one idea that they should work hard. Working hard is the most important thing."
Chinese teachers trained Guangchen initially, but in his second year a teacher, Mars Mihailovich, from Perm, Russia arrived at the school. This particular teacher was the last of several teachers who were trained by Agrippina Vaganova, who developed and perfected the Vaganova ballet technique. Guangchen remembers how this Russian teacher suggested that he think about teaching rather than dancing. "He told me once, privately, that I should be thinking more in a teacher's way more than thinking in a dancer's way".
With this thought seeded in Guangchen's mind, he began to recognise that he had talents beyond a physical capacity for dance - talents that are well suited to his current position as Assistant Ballet Master. "I'm the person who always remembered the combinations the Russian teachers set on Mondays", says Guangchen. The resident Russian teachers would use the same combinations of steps everyday for a week, so it was very important that the students remember them. By Tuesday, however, both the students and teacher - who had many other classes to attend to - had forgotten the combinations. "Even if the teacher asked each student to remember one combination each, on Tuesday morning they always came to me; I always remembered the whole class". Over the years Guangchen has amassed an impressive collection of notebooks filled with dance combinations, corrections, and rehearsal notes, which he considers either too beautiful or too important to ever be forgotten.
At age fifteen, Guangchen met Ivan Cavallari - who was creating The Last Emperor and I for Liaoning Ballet - for the first time. By chance, Ivan approached Guangchen to ask where he might find a doctor or physiotherapist about a minor injury that he had sustained. Guangchen could speak very little English at the time, but he managed to overcome the language barrier enough to impress Ivan, who then asked whether Guangchen would like to be in his ballet. The role involved Guangchen and another boy donning traditional Chinese lion costumes and dancing a lion pas de deux. This was a fantastic opportunity as most students only get to perform with the Company in their final year. Guangchen jumped at the chance, and accepted Ivan's offer.
When Guangchen - now training with a new Russian teacher from the Bolshoi - did reach his final year at Liaoning Ballet School he discovered that a new French school, Académie de La Musique de Lyon, had just opened in China. While most people would find studying at one school satisfactory, Guangchen decided to join the French school as well, so that in his final year he was training with two schools. "I had two classes a day. In the morning i was Russian trained, and immediately after I finished the Russian class I had to go to the French class ", says Guangchen, laughing. In addition to the extra classes, Guangchen was also asked to start work as an apprentice with the Liaoning Ballet.
It was in Guangchen's "very busy" final year that he met Ifor the second time, while Ivan was restaging The Last Emperor and I for Liaoning Ballet. This time, due to his increased fluency in English, Guangchen acted as Ivan's translator during Company rehearsals. "After Ivan finished 'cleaning' his ballet, I went on tour with the Company around China", says Guangchen. "On my return from the tour, I was offered two months holiday". The holiday fell between February and April of 2004, and during this time an unlikely and fortuitous chain of events began to unfold for Guangchen.
"One of my classmates has a sister who is a soloist of Liaoning Ballet, and she had the opportunity of bringing a dancer to a dance course held at the Crystal Dance Academy (CDA) in Italy", says Guangchen. "Of course she wanted to give the position to her brother, but her brother could not talk English". Unless a Chinese national can speak English reasonably well it is doubtful that foreign embassies will issue them with a travel visa. By this stage, everyone knew that Guangchen could speak English relatively well, so his classmate came up with an idea. "What he wanted to do was ask for another position for two of us, then I could go with him... to help translate for him", explains Guangchen. their request was successful, and the pair took off for Europe.
As fate would have it, the CDA Dance Coursewas held at a Dance Academy in Bolzano, Italy - the hometown of Ivan Cavallari. "This was very, very dramatic, because I said bye-bye to Ivan after his work at Liaoning Ballet, and less than half a year later I see him in his hometown", exclaims Guangchen, laughing. In another twist, Ivan was supposed to be working in Germany at the time, but organisers asked Ivan if he could teach at the CDA Dance Course for a week. "Both of us arrived in Bolzano on the same day", says Guangchen. "We were both very shocked - it was incredible". But while many aspects of Guangchen's journey seemed to fall into place as if by magic, bureaucracy and red tape nearly thwarted Guangchen's plans entirely.
"The visa was incredibly hard to apply, because I was under eighteen. I was in the Italian embassy thirteen times", says Guangchen. Guangchen arrived two weeks late to the dance course, because the two students were held up in Beijing for one month while trying to secure visas. "What was really unlucky during this one month was the arrival of Chinese New Year, and all the embassies have to shut down for seven days", explains Guangchen. "It was incredible; we were rushing around for our visas, and running late, and then the holiday happened - the longest holiday in China". After waiting out the holiday, and surviving a number of battles with the embassy, the two students finally received their visas.
After finishing the CDA Dance Course in Bolzano Guangchen still had three weeks left on his visa, so he and his friend decided to tour and audition around Europe. Money was not an issue for the students. The CDA Dance Course covered travel and accommodation expenses in addition to issuing students with an allowance for food and sundries. "As Chinese students we never had so much money in our hands; we got so excited. We didn't know how to spend it, so we ended up saving a lot of money", says Guangchen.
Guangchen travelled to Germany to audition for John Cranko's Ballet Academy in Stuttgart, and, as luck would have it, again crossed paths with Ivan (who was working with Stuttgart Ballet at the time). Guangchen auditioned successfully for the school, and was delighted to have the opportunity of working with renowned Russian teacher Petrinovich Pestov. Guangchen's talent as a dancer also seemed to be highly regarded at the Stuttgart School, as he always found himself in the first cast of any production.
Ultimately, however, Guangchen became despondent after a year of training at the school. "I didn't feel that I progressed over the first year at all, and i started to become unhappy", says guangchen. "and I lso didn't have a good roommate". Gangchen's growing unhappiness at the Suttgart Shool led him to consider auditioning for other schools in Euope.
Gangchen eventually auditioned for the Heinz Bosl Stiftung in Munich while still attending the Stuttgart School, and for good reason. Guangchen says that he would have had to return to China to get another visa, and felt that his chances of securing another visa were very slim. Guangchen's Munich audition was successful and the school offered him a scholarship.
Guangchen was much happier at Heinz Bosl Stiftung. The studios were larger, the students were friendly, his accommodation greatly improved, his new flatmate much more agreeable and, most importantly, he got to study with celebrated Russian teacher Alexander Prokofiew. Overall, Guangchen's time in Munich was very rewarding, and during this time he was offered contracts from four European ballet Companies. After some consideration, Guangchen decided to sign a contract offered to him by the Bavarian State Ballet in Munich.
Guangchen signed his contract in May to start in September, but due to an emergency the Company had him performing in Le Corsair long before his contract began. Guangchen says that the Company's director was extremely pleased with his ability to take direction and learn his role so quickly. With the many contracts on offer, the opportunity of working with Bavarian State Ballet in Le Corsair, and some high praise from the Company's director, it looked as though Guangchen's future as a dancer was bright - but it was not to be.
While training in Europe, Guangchen developed a persistent achilles injury during a particularly taxing rehearsal period of Troy Games. Guangchen, thrilled to be in the first cast of Troy Games, tried to hide the fact that he had an injury, and hoped that the injury would heal by itself - just as his knee injury did at the Liaoning School. But he was also later diagnosed with an innate structural hip problem, and was faced with the prospect of a risky hip operation in order to continue dancing. Contemplating his future as a dancer, Guangchen sought counsel from his mentor from the Liaoning School, impresario Jongky Goei.
Jongky considered all Guangchen's options and suggested that Guangchen work at Liaoning Ballet as translator and coordinator for international guest artists - a newly proposed position inspired by Guangchen's previous achievements in this area. While Guangchen longed to have some kind of career as a performer, he felt that Jongky had offered him some very sound advice, and cancelled his contract before the September commencement date. Guangchen recalls how the director made a point of telling the dancers of Bavarian State Ballet that it was the first time that he had "met such an honest dancer".
Before Guangchen could finalise arrangements with Liaoning Ballet, however, Ivan again intervened, and offered Guangchen a position with West Australian Ballet. While Guangchen was very keen to learn more from the wealth of talented teachers and artists that came through the doors of the Liaoning Ballet, he found Ivan's offer far too attractive to refuse. "Ivan is a very smart artist, and I like to talk to smart people. and this is a great opportunity because of course Ivan has much richer ideas and knowledge", says Guangchen. "So I told him I would like to come".
As West Australian Ballet's Assistant Ballet Master, Guangchen uses his natural talents and acquired knowledge to teach ballet class, organise schedules, digitally document rehearsals, and perform other administrative tasks. Aside from his administrative duties, Guangchen also performed character roles - an innkeeper and priest - during West Australian Ballet's last season of The Taming of the Shrew. "Right now I'm happy to focus on what I'm doing, and be happy in what I'm doing", says Guangchen. some of that focus, adds Guangchen, will be spent learning how to hone his teaching skills. More generally, Guangchen says he will strive to help and learn from others - a result, no doubt, of how others have treated him throughout his life thus far.
"What has happened in my life has happened all very luckily, and been very much a surprise", says Guangchen. "I'm very happy to give a hand to Ivan, because I'm happy when i see that I'm being useful to a professional ballet company and adding something to it. I want to make something that is helpful for the Company, for others, for the arts".