Queensland Ballet 's Hao Bin and his real life partner Meng Ningning had just given their final performance for 2011 of Swan Lake when I caught up with them in the Green Room at Queensland Performing Arts Centre. Their promotions to the rank of principal had recently been announced, coming as little surprise to those who had seen them perform in the five months since they joined the company.
Both Hao and Meng were previously principal dancers with National Ballet of China (NBC), with solid careers behind them. What, I asked them, had prompted the move to Australia and Queensland Ballet?
“We had been with the same company for so long,” replied Hao, “and we wanted the chance to work overseas, to work in different styles and to work with different people. We had danced overseas before, but it was with National Ballet of China – always the same company.”
Their international exposure has actually been significant. In 2004, Hao received a Jury Special Award at the third Shanghai International Ballet Competition and was the first Chinese dancer invited to perform in Stuttgart, Germany when he danced at a ceremonial gala at John Cranko’s Dance Festival Celebration in 2007. With NBC he toured extensively, as did Meng, to countries including Britain, France, Italy, the USA, Hong Kong and Macao, and most recently Hao was invited in June 2011 to perform Etudes as a guest artist with Santiago Ballet in Chile.
Likewise Meng has substantial experience on the international stage performing leading roles in the Chinese ballets The Red Detachment of Women, Raise the Red Lantern, and Yellow River, as well as the classics Le Corsair, Lycette Darsonval’s Sylvia, Giselle, Raymonda and Nureyev’s production of Don Quixote. Recently, she worked with British choreographer Akram Khan in a new work Bahok, and in 2010 she was a guest artist in the Queensland Ballet International Gala.
When QB Artistic Director Francois Klaus first saw Meng dance he declares he was “immediately convinced of her talent, versatility and technique in both classical and contemporary. Her dancing,” he went on to say, “is refined, intelligent, and showing a great knowledge of dance. And as a person she is modest, generous and witty.”
Klaus knew Hao from reputation, and had seen him on film. “He was a remarkable dancer, and like Meng, he is very pleasant to work with. He has an amazing jump, especially for someone quite tall.”
Indeed Hao defies misconceptions of the Chinese as being short, having the presence of a true danseur noble. A glorious long line is underpinned by the lightest jump and luscious turns. Meng, on the other hand, has a fragile, delicate appearance that belies her steely, crisp technique.
Both Hao and Meng trained at the prestigious Beijing Dance Academy, leaving home at an early age to study full time. “I was ten years old when I was chosen,” remembers Meng, who comes from the northern town of An Shan. “Every couple of years the teachers would come around to the towns to pick up new students, and I was lucky enough to be chosen.” Hao, from Tai Yuan (also in Northern China), remembers that leaving home at eleven to board at the Academy was tough. “You leave your family and have to look after yourself, and do the washing of all your dance clothes. You have to learn everything by yourself. We would only see our parents twice a year so they couldn’t help us much.”
Even though Hao had little understanding of what ballet was at the time, being chosen was regarded as a privilege. As Meng, who graduated with honours in 1996, explains: “In China we have over 1.3 billion people and each year the Academy only chooses about ten children. So we do train very hard. It is all about your career, not a hobby. In Australia you train in ballet because you like it as a child, but in China it is your career (from the outset). It is more serious.”
Apart from the obvious challenges of getting used to living in a foreign country, particularly as both speak very little English, it is business as usual in the studio for the two dancers, with no evidence of a more relaxed ‘Aussie’ attitude. “No! It is tough everywhere for professional dancers,” insists Hao, adding that he finds the dancers of Queensland Ballet very passionate about the art form.
Both find the style very different though. “Every company is different,” says Hao, “so it is a matter of getting used to the new style and making it a part of yourself.” However, Meng while agreeing, thinks that here “you have the opportunity to interpret the style for your own body much more.” And she adds: “This was one of the main reasons I wanted to leave National Ballet of China. I had been there fifteen years and a dancer’s life is very short. This is a great opportunity to work with a new company and in new partnerships.”
In particular according to Hao, it was a wonderful experience having roles created on them for Klaus’s new ballet for the QB, King Arthur and the Tales of Camelot. “This was a new experience for us.”
Meng has also been amazed at the opportunities afforded here to dancers once they retire. “In China many retired dancers go on to teach, but here, you can go on to study, to learn different things. It’s made us realise there’s lots of opportunities after dance.” In fact Meng has aspirations of maybe studying law after retiring.
However, audiences would be hoping I think, that it might be a few years yet before either one of this charming couple has any thoughts of leaving the stage.
– DENISE RICHARDSON
This article was published in the April/May 2012 issue of 'Dance Australia'.