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An Artist First

An Interview with Oregon Ballet Theatre's Xuan Cheng

by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

October 8, 2011 -- Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 2011-12 season is replete with new company members and we were fortunate to be able to interview one of its principal dancers, the charming and lively Xuan Cheng. We met in the house of the theatre shortly after they had finished their company class and just a few hours before the world premieres of new interpretations of two large-scale ballets, “Petrouchka” and “Carmen” which added to the ambience and thrill of getting to know one of today’s top dancers.

How did you started in ballet and what led you to Oregon Ballet Theatre?

I’m from Hunan Province – Chenzhou, a small city in the south of China. I started for fun at the age of five, not realizing of course how hard ballet is! I went to Guangzhou at the age of 10 (1995) and studied there for five years and in 2000 joined the company as an apprentice, then grew through the ranks: corps; second soloist; first soloist; then senior soloist. I was encouraged by my principal teacher – and coached – to enter competitions, where an important aspect of training happens – the classical pas de deux and variations, plus presentation on the stage.

I won the Silver Medal at the third Shanghai International Ballet Competition in 2004 and was a finalist in the New York International Ballet Competition in 2005. I’m proudly happy that I won the Gold Medal in 2006 at the Chinese competition known as Tao Li Bei, whose approximate translation is “Peach and Plum Cup.”

As I said, these are a very good training process to participate in...and the company paid for everything! Rehearsals for competitions are in addition to the many hours of regular repertoire rehearsals. The most important thing that I learned is not just to be a good dancer, but to also be an artist because the process helped me to improve my dancing quickly! From dancing different repertory, I also have learned dance is not only dancing but also a performing art – which I am still learning and exploring...and trying to improve and be an artist.

How you connected with La La La Human Steps is an interesting story...

Yes. When I saw a film of them, I thought they were amazing – impressed by how fast they could move. It was nearly unbelievable. So I was excited to learn that the director, Edouard Lock, was actually looking to hire Chinese dancers to replace some that had left, and sent him a DVD of my dancing...and was offered a spot in the company!

I had wanted to see the world and being with La La La helped fulfill that dream. The company is bilingual, being based in Montréal. I was cast in “Amjad,” a full-length, contemporary ballet with live music. And I did get to do a world tour, mostly in Europe and Canada but also to New York, LA, Philadelphia, Mexico, Tel Aviv, Japan, Singapore. I really got to see the world!

I had been taking class at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens during down times with La La La, and so thought, “Why not audition for them?” Les Grands Ballets has a very good repertory of contemporary ballets. I auditioned there and was accepted, and stayed for two years.
I'm happy to be here at OBT – I like more of a classical repertoire, which we have here -- and wanted to experience it while still young enough.


Tonight is not your debut with the Company?

No, I actually toured with OBT to Korea with the Balanchine “Nutcracker” earlier this Summer. I had to learn it in two weeks. I did the parts of ‘Sugar Plum Fairy’ and ‘Marzipan.’

Tonight I’m doing Micaela in “Carmen.” There are two pas de deux for her with Don José.


Let’s talk about artistry...

I try to bring myself into the character’s world and like story ballets and playing characters. I feel lucky to be doing the thing that I really love doing – I try to be not just a dancer, but an artist.

While of course it's early – we don’t know exactly what casting is going to look like – I’m looking forward to this season’s upcoming “Giselle” and the Balanchine “Violin Concerto.” Balanchine is a challenge – the speed and different balance points.


How do you like Portland so far?

Portland is a beautiful city. The people are very kind and patient. While I do have a license, I’ve never really driven before, so this is a good place to learn to drive a car! Great restaurants here too – I’m lucky to be able to eat a lot and not get fat! I love shopping and music. My tastes run to the classical and Chinese. I do want to be able to drive around Portland and see more sights.

Do you have any parting comments for us?

Be very precise in class – then you can have freedom.

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