During my two years with this company, we toured across Canada from Vancouver to Halifax. I had the opportunity to see many parts of this vast country. The landscape was so amazing. Touring conditions were much better than they were with my company in China, where we travelled on crowded trains and shared hotel rooms with four or five other dancers. The Canadian tours were also times to get to know the dancers better. We became close friends. My time with Judith's company was a wonderful beginning for me. I danced in many of her works and this provided me with a solid bridge into the future.
There were lay-off times with the company, as I found out was the case for most dance companies. During one of these, I kept in shape by taking ballet classes with Ballet BC. When John Alleyne became the new artistic director of the company, I auditioned for him but this was at a time when there were no openings for new dancers. A year later John saw me dance with the Judith Marcuse Company and offered me a contract. Entrance into Ballet BC was an important step upward for me. I spent seven years with this company and danced in the ballets of many established choreographers, as well as in several works created by John Alleyne. The other choreographers included William Forsythe, John Cranko, Jirí Kylián, Serge Bennathan, James Kudelka and Mark Godden. At one point, Peter Bingham, a leading teacher and choreographer of contact improvisation, collaborated with Alleyne on a dance piece that opened my eyes to other approaches to choreography.
CA: During this first phase of your career, were you choreographing?
WWW: I was choreographing in China for our company. In 1988, the Lanzhou local television station sponsored a choreographic competition. I created and performed a duet called Love Song and received first prize, which was a colour television set. At that time in China, such an item was worth more than the average annual salary. Our company was very impressed by this achievement. That's why the company sent me to the PLA Art Academy.
I started dance when I was six years old. I always liked to be productive, to make things. I had no playmates, no friends, so I played chess. I made patterns and moved the pieces, like dancers, in my head.
Working with Judith's company, I had the opportunity to choreograph a group work for a choreographic workshop sponsored by the company. I think it was quite a nice piece. We had studio showings and the Vancouver dance community were able to see what I could do and everyone said, “Whoa!” I felt like that was my first test. Then I started to choreograph for Arts Umbrella, a local dance school. It had a company for young dancers. And I also created a piece for the Ballet BC Mentor Program. In 2000, I received the Clifford E. Lee Choreographic Award from The Banff Centre. I created a large ballet called Snow for the Banff Summer Program. After a year, I remounted Snow for Alberta Ballet.
Dancing here was so different from China. There they look after you for life, into retirement. In my first salary, I made two yen – two dollars – more than my father, who was a high school principal with over thirty years' experience. He got very jealous when I told him! But here I had seven or eight months of work in a contract, and I was shocked that I had no employment for three or four months each year. Very different than growing up in a communist country where they take care of you twelve months a year. So I learned how to survive – first of all to save money, and to work hard. I taught a lot of classes in different ballet schools and Chinese dance schools.
CA: Was part of your traning in traditional Chinese dance, as well as ballet?
WWW: Yes. When the Communists took over the country in 1949, they created training resources for dancers, based on Russian ballet. Then in the 1960s, Madame Mao – Mao Tse Tung's wife – took over the arts. She wanted her own ballet. They took elements from Beijing opera and Russian ballet, so our upper body is Beijing opera, but our legs and feet are Russian ballet!
I went to the Lanzhou Army Dance School in 1978 to start my professional career. Our daily schedule began with a 6:00 a.m. wakeup, followed by a half-hour run outdoors and a period of stretching before a breakfast of steamed bread and pickles (sometimes boiled eggs). From 8:00 a.m. until noon we took a ballet class, followed by a boys' technique class to perfect our jumps, turns and special tricks. After lunch we had a much-needed one-hour nap. Then we studied folk and classical Chinese dancing, alternating with repertory and gymnastics until 4:00 p.m. After that we studied academic subjects such as languages, history and politics until the dinner break at 6:00 p.m. From then until lights out at 10:00 p.m, we did required homework and occasionally attended movies or performances. The evenings were also times for the mandatory communist meetings. (next page)