The conflict of making choices

In This Article

I’m honoured to be asked to deliver the seventh Dame Peggy van Praagh Memorial Address. When Shirley McKechnie asked me a few months ago to give this speech, I said yes without hesitation, but almost immediately, I felt a sense of overwhelming foolishness, since I didn’t really know Dame Peggy as did many previous speakers at this event. But on a second thought, even though I didn’t have the privilege or wasn’t old enough to work directly with her, I think that my relatively successful dance career reflected some of Peggy’s aspirations: Perseverance, resilience, determination and courage.

I wasn’t sure where I was going to start today, because there were so many great people and so many important milestones in my life that have influenced the direction of my dance career, and to a larger extent, my life. I have completed my autobiography, Mao’s Last Dancer, only recently, so I have been able to draw on some reflections and lessons through my own life experiences to write this address. If I could pinpoint one thing that stood out in my life’s journey thus far, it would be the difficulty of making choices and their resulting effect on my path through life.

As a former dancer, and more importantly, as a parent, I have found that life is all about making tough choices. I’m the father of three beautiful children, ranging in age from fourteen to five. The girls learn ballet, tap, jazz and play musical instruments. They love dance. Whereas my son doesn’t want to dance, he does appreciate music and dance performances. Like many boys in the world, he is a sports-crazy lad. Through nurturing my own children I have truly gained huge admiration for my parents, for their struggles and for their dedication to their seven boys, and most importantly, for the tough choices that they had to make.

I was the sixth of my parents’ seven sons, born on Australia Day in 1961 into a poverty-stricken peasant family, where getting enough food to fill our stomachs was our ultimate ambition. Throughout my childhood years I witnessed people dying of starvation and easily curable diseases. I experienced extreme hunger on a daily basis and in some years, desperate people even ate the bark of trees. I truly tasted the bitterness of life, in great want, and without freedom.

Even though I felt such desperation for a better life for me and my family, even though I was confronted with a sense of hopelessness throughout the first eleven years of my childhood, I had love—my mother’s, my father’s and my brothers’ love—especially my mother’s—and her love was unconditional and unlimited. Unknown to me then, that love was dearer and stronger than anything in the world. That love gave me strength, the strength to make tough choices in life. That strength gave me courage, and that courage propelled me forward to pursue my far away dreams.

I was plucked out of the remote country village by Madame Mao’s cultural advisers from the Beijing Dance Academy at the age of eleven because of my physicality. I had no idea what ballet was or what was required of it. All I knew was that this would be my one and only chance to escape that deep and dark well—to escape that cruel life—and eventually be able to help my entire family. I wasn’t concerned about ballet and didn’t really care what ballet was, as long as I could have enough food to eat.

I was nearly eleven years old when, one day at school, while we were busy as usual memorising some of Chairman Mao's sayings, the headmaster came into our freezing classroom with four dignified-looking people wearing Mao's jackets and coats with synthetic fur collars.

I was paranoid. I immediately thought of the incident with the writing on the wall. Not again, I thought. What's wrong this time? But to my surprise, the headmaster introduced them as Madam Mao's representatives from Beijing. They were here to select talented students to study ballet and to serve in Chairman Mao's revolution. He asked us all to stand up and sing We Love Chairman Mao.

The east is red, the sun is rising.
China's Mao Zedong is born.
He is here to give people a happy life.
He is our lucky star who saved us all.

As we sang, the four representatives came down the aisles and selected a girl with big eyes, straight teeth and a pretty face. They passed me without taking any notice, but just as they were walking out of our classroom, Teacher Song hesitated. She tapped the last gentleman from Beijing on the shoulder and pointed at me. "What about that boy?" she said.

The gentleman from Beijing glanced in my direction. "Okay, he can come, too," he said in an offhand manner, in perfect Mandarin dialect.

The girl with the big eyes and I followed Madam Mao's people into the headmaster's office. It was the only room with a coal-burning heater, a hand-made contraption cobbled together from a bucket, with pipes attached in all directions like spider legs. Despite this luxury though, the room was still extremely cold.

There were other children already in the room when we arrived—ten children had been chosen altogether and we all wore our thick-quilted homemade coats and pants and looked like little round snowballs as we stood together in the freezing room.

"Take all your clothes off except your underwear! Step forward one by one. We are going to measure your body and test your flexibility," a man with glasses said. Everyone stood there nervously. Nobody moved. "What's your problem? Didn't you hear? Take your clothes off!" our headmaster barked. "I'm sorry," one of the boys answered timidly, "but I don't have any underwear."

To my surprise, I was the only child who did have underwear, hand-me-downs from several older brothers, multi-layered and patchworked with mending by my niang. All ten of us during that audition had to share my one set of underwear.

The officials measured our proportions: our upper body and our legs, our neck length, even our toes. I watched a few of the students been tested before me, they screamed and winced. One of the officials came over to me and bent both of my legs outwards. Another official held my shoulders to stabilise me and a third pushed his knee against my lower back, at the same time pulling both of my knees backwards with great force to test the turnout of my hip joints. It was so painful, it felt like my joints, tendons, bones and mussels would break all at once. I wanted to scream as well, but for some bizarre reason I didn't. I had a stubborn thought: I didn't want to lose my dignity, I didn't want to lose my pride. And I clinched my teeth.

By the time they'd finished testing everyone, only one boy and one girl were selected to go to the next level. I was that boy. I was excited but I was also frightened. I didn't know what was going to happen. The officials mentioned ballet, but all I knew about ballet was what I'd seen in the ballet movie, The Red Detachment of Women. I had no idea what ballet was all about.

The audition was a hot discussion topic both at school and in our village over the next few days. At first my parents didn't pay much attention. There was no way in the world anyone in our family could have any artistic talent, they thought. Several of my brothers and my classmates teased me. "Show us a ballet step! Show us a ballet step!" But they knew, just like them, that I had no idea. For me, the most exciting aspect of it all was not the ballet but the possibility of going to Beijing to be near our beloved Chairman Mao; the possibility, however unlikely, of getting out of my deep well.

I went to the Commune Office a few weeks later to go through the next level of audition. This time they sent notices to parents beforehand, asking candidates to come dressed with underwear.

This audition was much harder. The girl with the big eyes from my class didn't pass this round: she screamed when they bent her body backwards and was disqualified for inadequate flexibility of her back. Then it was my turn. One teacher lifted one of my legs upwards, two others held my other leg steady and straight. They kept asking me if it hurt. Of course it hurt, it was excruciating! But I was determined to be chosen, so I kept smiling and replied, "No, it doesn't hurt," as they lifted my leg higher and higher. Be strong! Be strong! You can bear the pain! I kept telling myself. I did bear the pain, but the hardest thing was pretending to walk away normally afterwards. They had torn both my hamstrings.

My opportunity was my parents’ dilemma—they were faced with difficult choices: as their son was only eleven years old, would they let him go so young into the world of the unknown? After all, they themselves had never seen the world outside their little village. But they decided this was a one in a billion opportunity for their son to make a future for himself, even though he was too young to brave the outside world, for they knew the alternative meant that their sixth son would be a starving peasant for the rest of his life.

Their decision to allow me to attend the Beijing Dance Academy at age eleven would have been plagued with hope, excitement and heartache, all at the same time. Fortunately this choice reaped great benefits for me and led me to my eventual dance career. As a parent, I constantly aim to reach that ‘middle ground’ where my children aren’t pushed to the extent of obsession, but at the same time, understand that to achieve anything successful in life, lots and lots of hard work and many sacrifices are required.

"I don’t want to leave you. Would you come with me to Beijing?" I asked my mother ambivalently. "What for? To wipe your bottom?" my mother replied. She then urged me to go forward and not to look back. She encouraged me to grasp this opportunity to make a better life for myself. I didn’t know then that she hid her tears and pain from me, sobbed with worries and guilt for several years, knowing that I was very homesick for the first couple of years in Beijing.

I didn’t know or couldn’t possibly understand what suffering she’d endured on my behalf, and what a difficult choice my parents had made for their son. Once again, I think of the level of the responsibility we need to pass on to our children, our students and the future generation of artistic talents. We must do this without the burdens that stop them from achieving.

From that day forward, I undertook the seven-year Vaganova training program. The training at the Beijing Dance Academy was extremely disciplined, and sometimes brutal. The ear-piercing 5.30am wake-up bell marked the beginning of our hectic day. We studied ballet, Beijing Opera movement, Chinese folk dance, martial arts, acrobatics, pas de deux, character, variations, as well as math, poetry, history, geology, Chinese, politics, music and a strange class called "the relationship between politics and arts." The day finished at 9.00pm. We trained and studied six days a week. The whole thing seemed utterly meaningless to me.

At first, it was all pain and no fun. I had such difficulty understanding our teachers’ Mandarin (we spoke a different dialect in my hometown) let alone French terminology. The endless handstands and backbends our acrobatic teachers made us do were agonising. The torn hamstrings and pulled muscles from forced and brutal exercises in our Beijing Opera movement classes made me want to go back home. But then I remembered the choice I’d made, and what my mother said and the hope my entire family had placed upon my shoulders. I felt a great sense of responsibility. I had to do well, I had to endure it.

We were allowed to go home to see our families only once a year. Not only were we expected to be good at our dance-related training, more importantly we had to excel in our political studies. We had to become Mao’s faithful red guards. To remain in touch with Mao’s ‘three classes’ of people, we frequently lived and worked with the peasants, factory workers and the soldiers in the military. Those annual visits normally lasted three to four weeks. We had to practise our art form out in the uneven fields or on cracked concrete factory floors. We were encouraged to take cold showers in the middle of the cold winter where the temperature could be as low as twenty degrees below zero, or practise our back flips and air somersaults out in the snow to build up our resilience and endurance.

The seven years of military-like life at the Beijing Dance Academy was hard. And it severely tested our endurance and taught us resilience. As young as ten or eleven, we were expected to be totally independent, we were expected to mature and grow up fast. We were taught to love Mao and to love communism above all else.

For the first two years, I was so homesick everything seemed terribly boring. I was considered by most as a hopeless student without talent. I didn’t understand ballet and felt like a bird that had been trapped in a cage. On the first day there, for some strange reason, this teacher made us wear these extremely tight ballet shoes which made my feet cramp constantly in the cold. The forced turn-out duckling positions the teachers made us do had caused the arches in my feet to fall down, and this was considered extremely bad. Some of my teachers had predicted that I could never jump high or turn well due to my fallen arches. I was sure that I would fail and the officials would send me home.

But one day, in the second half of my second year, a new ballet teacher, Xiao Shuhua, walked into my life. He discovered and nurtured me. Through him I discovered the beauty and grace of the art form that I used to hate. He showed me how exquisite ballet could truly be. He used the analogy of a mango to inspire my dancing.

Of course I had never seen or tasted a mango, but he described this beautiful and rare fruit in such a delicious way that it stirred up my curiosity and made my mouth water. He encouraged me not only to taste the pulp of the mango, but challenged me to feel, to smell, to taste each layer of the fruit, even the skin and the nut—to enjoy every step of the process.

As Peggy was to so many, teacher Xiao’s inspiration made the difference in my dancing life. From that day onward I loved ballet, I never looked back. I had made up my mind, I’d made a choice: I would strive to become the best ballet dancer that I could possibly be.

Once I found my passion, I was on my way, and nothing could have stopped me. We had no Pilates or exercise machines of any sort. No gyms to go to, not even any understanding or knowledge of human anatomy. But I was determined to prove the doubters wrong about my jumping and turning. To strengthen my jumping ability, I strapped sandbags onto my legs, hopping four levels of staircases, one-legged, up and down, up and down at five o’clock in the morning before everyone else was awake. To improve my pirouettes, I would practise endlessly under a candle light at night when everybody else was asleep.

That was the only way that I wouldn’t be discovered or be labelled as "single-minded about ballet" because that would be considered "politically unbalanced." However, I was single-minded and passionate about ballet.

After seven years of endless hard work, I graduated at the top of my class at the Beijing Dance Academy and was recognised as one of the best dancers China had ever produced.

There were so many hurdles along the way. Often, they seemed to be unconquerable. At times I felt as if I was the worst dancer ever. Little or no improvements were made, no matter how hard I worked. At other times I felt that I was a total loser, I simply didn’t want to go on and often felt like giving it all up. However, I learnt early on that there was no easy way if I wanted to be successful. And I’ve also learnt that new discoveries are often waiting for me just at the other side of the unconquerable hurdles. The disciplined life in the Beijing Dance Academy taught me determination, perseverance and resilience.

Throughout my life, I have used the discipline that I learned there to promote resilience. Combined with sheer determination, this proved to be priceless for me. Because of these qualities I tasted the fruit of my own hard work—the sweetness of success. I truly believe that resilience is the staying power for individuals to achieve in life. The discipline of dance places individuals in a great position to handle the adversities of life.

Seven years at the Beijing Dance Academy was a long time to wait for rewards! Nowadays many of us want an easier option and faster results, and seven years would seem endless. In the last year of my training in Beijing I experienced what many Australian dancers have experienced in the past under the guidance of Peggy van Praagh. Both Meryl Tankard and Marilyn Rowe have spoken in these Addresses of Peggy’s inspiring encouragement and support. It is a huge factor in the success of a young dance artist.

Like Marilyn and Meryl, I also received this blessing. My inspiring mentor was Ben Stevenson, a British choreographer and teacher, the Artistic Director of the Houston Ballet. Ben discovered me while he was teaching a master class at the Beijing Dance Academy. I was one of the two first cultural exchange students ever to be sent to the West under the communist rule. It was an opportunity beyond my wildest dreams. The cultural shock was so enormous, I felt as if I was walking on the moon when I first arrived in America.

Ben Stevenson inspired, nurtured and challenged me over the next sixteen years of my career. The West allowed me to experience the true freedom of dance for the first time in my life. I was given the opportunity to dance in New York, to witness the great dancing of artists like Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Gelsey Kirkland and Natalie Markarova. The inspiration they gave me was beyond description. My imagination found its freedom. I scrapped my old standards and set myself higher ones. Soon I was confronted with the conflict of two choices: To stay in the West to continue my progress as an artist, or to go back to China? This was an extremely difficult choice, and both represented life changing consequences. To go back to China meant that I had to conform to communist ideals yet again. It meant that I would dance in a politically restricted environment where the arts were dominated by the communist cause and were expected to play a role in supporting it.

I’m sure you agree that the choice seemed very obvious for me to make! Oh, no. Deep down, I knew that it would change the entire course of my life. I may never be allowed to go back to China to see my beloved parents, my brothers and my friends. The thought of this made my heart bleed. The choice I did make forced me to cut ties with my family and friends in China for many long years. I had to lock my special memories of my loved ones deep down in my heart. I had to be strong and resilient with myself, because I knew if I wasn’t strong, I wouldn’t be able to carry on living and pursuing my dreams. I wouldn’t be able to go forward as my mother had urged me to.

The choice to stay in the West was one choice I had to make, but it was a choice I had to live with, regardless of the consequences. Of course, I didn’t know whether it would eventually reward me or break me.

Despite the enormous guilt I felt about my family and friends, and the thoughts of never being able to see my mother and loved ones in China again, I devoted myself to ballet. I poured my total dedication into my work. I was fortunate enough to have people like Margot Fonteyn and Natalie Markarova to coach me, and people like Jiri Killian, Glen Tetley, Kenneth McMillan, Christopher Bruce, Ben Stevenson and many other world renowned choreographers to choreograph or stage works for me.

I danced on many historical stages and toured many wonderful countries. To learn from other artists, I competed in three international ballet competitions and was awarded two silver and one bronze medal. Ballet had opened my eyes to the world, leading me into this amazing journey, giving me a life, a life filled with joy and happiness. Even though I have experienced racism in my life in the West, I was largely protected from much of the harsh reality of it. I was respected by people from different races and different continents, from people of all walks of life.

This proves that dance, and to a wider extent, the other arts, transcend all races and creeds of people. It has given me enormous satisfaction to know that through my art form I have given people something extra in life.

In the middle of my dream-like career, I took a severe fall on the Bolshoi stage and herniated two discs in my spine. I was once again confronted with two choices: To give up dancing or to take the risk of further damaging the discs. I chose the latter. I wanted to continue to dance and I was determined to do whatever I could to achieve that goal. I then went on this torturous rehabilitation program and eventually went back on stage. I knew then that I was on borrowed time with my back and it would require me to live an even more disciplined life than before if I wanted to dance to my fullest.

I went on to dance for another thirteen years. It took a huge amount of discipline, resilience, perseverance and determination in those thirteen years. But I had to do it, because that was the choice I had made. I had to incorporate a routine of exercises into my daily life to keep my back and abdominal muscles strong. I refused to cut back on the partnering as the doctor had suggested. I refused to take an easy way out. I wanted to realise all my dreams, my dream to dance like no one before me.

In 1995, I made another difficult decision in my life: I decided to leave my mentor Ben Stevenson, who had discovered me in China and nurtured me to the status of a principal dancer. I decided to leave the Houston Ballet, the company I had danced with for nearly sixteen years, and to leave the dancers who had become my family.

But the new path I chose was exciting, a new challenge that I couldn’t wait to take on. I joined The Australian Ballet as a principal artist. To dance with The Australian Ballet has brought me immense rewards and satisfaction. I have had three and half years of wonderful dancing in Australia. The Australian people enthusiastically embraced me as an artist. Some of the performances in Australia were the highlights of my dance career—La Bayadère and Don Quixote. I only wish that I could have given the Australian people more of my dancing years.

I was briefed about Australian dance history when I joined the Ballet, and remember seeing Dame Peggy’s portrait high up on the wall in Studio A. It felt as if she was watching me, and I felt her presence there and in the Australian dancers’ vibrancy. I felt her presence in the Australian choreographers’ creativity. I felt there was something distinctively unique about Australian dancers and choreographers. The more I learned about her, the more I was inspired by her vision. I was and am still amazed by how much she has influenced the Australian dance scene today. Her vision and inspiration has nurtured and influenced a whole generation of artists, and I’m sure will continue to inspire for many generations to come.

I would like to finish my talk today by acknowledging someone who was also an inspiration to me as a dancer, my wife Mary McKendry. But Mary has also been a far bigger inspiration because of one of the choices she has made in her life. It was her decision to give up her dancing at the height of her career to ensure that our profoundly deaf daughter could enjoy and experience all the things life has to offer.

Mary’s choice has been beyond any love and pain that I could comprehend. In my mind, she made a most exceptional choice, and because of her sacrifice, we, my family, have reaped enormous rewards today. Our daughter, Sophie, not only speaks beautifully, she also plays piano, learns ballet, tap and jazz, she attends a normal school and is getting excellent grades. And now she often corrects my poor Chinglish.

Life can be wonderful, but life is also full of choices. Some are easy and others are difficult. Some crucial ones would lead you to different paths through life. We are confronted with them on a daily basis, but they all relate to the kind of life we want to live, or the kinds of dreams we want to realise. Often people don’t want to make choices. They are afraid of the challenges that may lie in front of them, and they want to look back.

What I would say to these people is: "Don’t look back! You have conquered what is behind you". Yes, one should occasionally reflect on the past, only to learn from previous mistakes and gather strength from past successes, but they should provide you with renewed courage and wisdom to go forward. It is much more exciting to discover what is ahead.

Peggy always tried hard to discover, encourage and foster new talents for the future of dance in this country. She encouraged excellence in dance. We, who are her successors, have an obligation to her legacy. We must continue to move dance to higher levels, and we can’t possibly do that if we fail to make the tough choices that are required to move forward. The future belongs to us, it is up to our generation to make dance that much more exciting. Let’s make dance special. Let us make dance meaningful. Let us take our inspiration from the teachers and mentors of the past and make future dance artists proud of the legacy we leave to them!