Apprentice Dancer with the Royal Ballet
Patricia Zhou is a prize winner of the prestigious Prix de Lausanne, whom as of August last year has been dancing in London at one of the world's most highly regarded ballet company's - The Royal Ballet. She is literally in the throes of her career's beginning and the world is her oyster.
I had the chance to quiz the young ballet dancer in her life as an Apprentice at the Royal Ballet and also on what the future may hold for this budding ballerina.
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In the ballet world, your commencement of training came rather late compared to most other dancers. At the age of 13, what made you decide to all of a sudden start ballet? - had you had any exposure to other dance forms or ballet before that age?
Well I actually started dancing recreationally at the age of seven, though I never count it as training as it was once-a-week ballet/tap combo classes. My early studio focused more on jazz and tap, so I had some exposure in varied styles of dance.
I didn't take dance seriously though - I went to the studio to see my friends. However, my main teacher saw potential in me and started sending me to competitions starting at the age of 11.
When I was almost 13, I started to get more interested in ballet, but my mom thought it was time for me to start really focusing on my studies instead. Since she knew ballet required a lot of discipline, and she knew I had none in any dance form, she made an arrangement for me to take a few private classes at the Beijing Dance Academy while I was visiting my grandparents over the summer. She thought the strict teachers would scare me out of dancing. Despite her intentions, I ended up falling in love with ballet. Although I went back to my old studio for another year after that, I started doing an extra hour of ballet every week.
Was it hard "catching up" to your other class members when you started ballet, given that most of them probably already had at least ten years under their belt already?
Oh, definitely. It was terrible. The limited training I had before had been primarily in Cecchetti syllabus work, so I actually had no idea what the combinations were for a while. I still even now find it hard sometimes to pick up combinations because the terminology is so different. I remember when I first auditioned for the Kirov Academy in 2007, I had no idea what I was doing. I just mimicked the teacher and watched the dancers in front of me at barre--imagine my shock when I found out that I actually got in... with scholarship!
Then my first year at Kirov, I was in the lowest level for the first semester. I was quite embarrassed at first to be in that class as everyone was a good two years younger than me. But those few months really gave me a good base and knowledge of ballet and I can not be more grateful for that now. It made me want to work harder knowing I had so much to catch-up on. On the plus side, due to my hard work,I was moved up from the lowest level to the highest within two years.
When did you start formal full-time training?
I started formal full-time training when I was one month shy of fourteen. Embarrassingly, I admit, I didn't know that The Sleeping Beauty was a ballet until I was thirteen!
Did you go to a normal academic school whilst you were a teenager?
I did. The ballet school that I went to provided a very good, in house, academic program, so I never had to do any online classes, which is a blessing.
How did you feel before you stepped out onstage for your first ever international ballet competition?
My first ever serious international ballet competition... that was the Jackson IBC in 2010. It actually feels like ages ago, but it was, in reality, less than two years ago! I admit I was a little bit nervous, but I never expected to make it to the finals, which surprisingly I did, so I just went into it hoping to do my best. My mum always raised me to compete with myself and not with others, so as long as I worked as hard as I could, and did my best, I was happy.
I still remember the buzz I had and how happy I was to have the chance to dance on stage in front of so many people. It was just total euphoria.
What did you learn from your experiences at the Prix de Lausanne?
I learned so much from the Prix. It was an incredible feeling to be there in Lausanne. If you would have told me when I first started ballet that I would have the chance to compete in one of the world's most prestigious competitions, I don't think I would have believed you.
In reality though, it wasn't about winning for me, it was about exposure. I didn't expect to get into the finals or even place, so it really taught me to believe in myself and go for it.
I also went to a few competitions earlier that year in Paris and Beijing where I placed as well. Because my ballet teacher was too old to travel with me at the age of 76, I always went by myself. When your teacher was not there to push you, you have to take full responsibility and that's when you truly learn your limits and strengths. It was really hard, trust me, but it was invaluable for my growth. From these experiences I found that I grew the most as a person and a dancer when I was competing.
What does it mean to be an Apprentice at the Royal Ballet Company?
To be an apprentice at the Royal Ballet has definitely been different than I imagined. I was always told that I would be exhausted when I joined a company, dancing from 10-9, but actually, reality is a bit different. As an apprentice, I cover roles and go on for the big productions, but I don't dance as much as I'd imagined at all.
It gets really hard when you're not dancing all the time: especially with such a big company, there are so many dancers with seniority. But you find out early that it's all you. You can take it easy if you want, no one will push you or yell at you, but you can also make yourself work hard everyday, take everything you can from class, and get better. That's the toughest thing I've done so far, but that sense of fulfilment when you have a good class is amazing, because you can honestly say, I did this.
However, my experience has been incredible. Just being in the studio with such great dancers is unbelievable. I feel like I've learned so much by just being in class with them.
Are there any challenges with living so far away from home?
I've lived away from home since I went to Kirov in 2007, so I'm definitely used to being apart from my family. I do get homesick though every once in a while. Being away from all of my friends and family is hard, but I talk to my mom everyday and the dancers here at Royal Ballet are so friendly and welcoming, they always make me feel better.
What Royal Ballet repertoire have you learnt so far?
I've learned a lot of the Royal Ballet repertoire from Romeo and Juliet, Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker, to Jewels, Alice in Wonderland and Requiem. It's been a really busy season with a lot of variety, so I've been pretty lucky.
Where do you see yourself in five years time?
Well, next season I'm actually moving to Berlin to join Staatsballet Berlin as a corps de ballet member. I'm really excited for the season to commence and can't wait to start dancing more.
I'm not sure where I'll be in 5 years time to be honest. I, like every dancer out there, hope to be a principal someday in a major company, but as long as I'm dancing a lot and learning new rep, I'll be happy. I also hope to one day create a role in a new ballet, but for now, I'll just keep working hard and hoping for the best!!