Ballet through the eyes of Cinderella and Prince Charming

The stage lights cast an eerie blue glow over the performers as they stretch and go through their paces – strong, quick, practiced movements – in preparation for the evening’s performance of Cinderella, part of the HCMC Ballet Symphony Orchestra and Opera’s (HBSO) Gala Autumn Melodies series.

During the seven hour rehearsal, where long breaks for lighting, fiddling with ropes and props and last minute choreography notes are interspersed with actual dancing, the performers sprawl across the stage in various positions of repose, toes perpetually pointed as if that were their natural state. Dancers land with a loud thud on the wooden stage, an almost superhuman amount of hang time allowing them to complete multiple rotations with effortless grace as though they were on an ice rink. Others idle about on their phones while dressed in ornate period costumes, staving off ennui. From somewhere in the audience, one of the directors calls out, “I can see the stubble on your face!” to the wicked stepmother, to a chorus of laughter. In a throwback to Shakespearean times, muscled bodies in frilly dresses of Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsister are revealed to be male danseurs, tattoos and large hands and feet giving away their secret. Welcome to the world of ballet in HCMC.

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In a rare interview, Oi sat down with Minh Tu, 21, and Duc Nhuan, 27, who play Cinderella and Prince Charming (and who also happen to be real life sweethearts), to talk about the highs and lows of being a ballet dancer in Vietnam.

When was the first time you ever saw ballet?

MT: When I was small, my parents worked at the Saigon Opera House, so I often saw performers practicing. One of the experienced ballerinas suggested to my mother that I should take lessons. I’m not going to say I was talented, but even in kindergarten, I loved to dance. So when the opportunity came to take free lessons, I was eager to learn, mesmerized by the teacher.

DN: For me, I think it was destiny. When I was 13-years-old, an uncle from Hanoi came to visit me in my hometown and invited me to come back to Hanoi to audition for the Vietnam Dance College. I had no experience whatsoever with dance. But they played music to see if I could walk and clap in tune. I actually failed but because there were too few boys who auditioned that year, I got in. At first I didn’t like it. Into my second year, I viewed it as something to do just for fun. I never thought it would turn into a career.

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What type of training does a professional Vietnamese ballet dancer go through?

MT: The Hanoi dance school is different from the HCMC school. In HCMC, we also had to go to regular school during the day and only did actual dance in the evening. I still had to get good grades so my parents would let me continue. In Hanoi, everything is done at the dance school. There are school fees, but they aren’t too expensive. Some students are state-sponsored and there are scholarships. In the West, ballet dancers concentrate only on ballet, but in Vietnam, we train in all areas including character dance (foreign dances like flamenco or Russian
national dance), contemporary and traditional Vietnamese. If your teacher recognized you had talent in a certain area, she would give you extra attention and encouragement. In Vietnam, though, there aren’t a lot of professional dancers, so there isn’t the extreme competition like in other countries. But especially for Vietnamese at the soloist level, their devotion and passion is no less than dancers in other countries.

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What do family and friends think of your career?

MT: When I meet new people, they’re always surprised to hear I dance ballet. People still don’t know a lot about ballet or they think it’s too hoity-toity. They often think I’m a backup dancer for some pop singer. Also, my house is really small, so growing up I had no space to practice. But even while doing homework, I would practice small hand movements or prop myself against a window to practice. When my parents saw that I liked it and was improving every year, they let me keep at it. When I had some recitals at the Opera House, my parents realized that their daughter could actually have a career in dance if I put my all into it.

DN: My parents are not artsy people. They’re farmers. But when they saw me doing ballet as a kid, they were happy to have an artistic son. When I finished dance school, I moved to HCMC. So my parents have only ever seen me dance professionally on TV. They’ve never seen me dance live.

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What is a typical day like for you?

DN: My day starts out with an 8:30am ballet class at the Ho Chi Minh City Dance School. There’s a space dedicated to dancers for the HBSO. Then we’ll practice for upcoming performances. In the afternoon, I sometimes dance at private functions. I’ve done banking seminars, doing modern dance, whatever the clients want.

MT: I don’t have as much time as Duc Nhuan to do outside work. I teach at the dance school and in the afternoons, we often put on performances for the students or visiting dancers from Malaysia, Singapore or Korea. In the evening, I teach class.

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Is ballet a viable career option?

DN: Well, for private functions, after costume rentals and expenses, we each earn about VND 600,000 per song. Everyone has to do work on the side like that. Not many boys study the six to seven years it takes to become a ballet dancer.

MT: A lot of people get distracted, they study other things as well and then go on to university and end up pursuing a different career. It all depends on your talent and lifestyle. In my class, most have stayed in dance, working in small private dance troupes. In life, you have to eat and play. I make enough through ballet only to eat. But I live with my parents still, so I don’t go out that much.

Please explain why two hulking men are playing the role of the stepmother and stepsister.

MT: Our [Norwegian] choreographer explained it to us that the stepmother and stepsister are not beautiful people. They’re ugly and uncouth, both in body and mannerisms. You just can’t find Vietnamese girls like that! We’re feminine, slim and beautiful. There just aren’t any Vietnamese girls with big hands and feet. It’s also for comedic value.

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Describe the feeling of coming out on stage, dancing in front of hundreds of people.

ND: Joy.

MT: My first few steps, I try not to look at the audience too soon. I need to concentrate on the character, becoming Cinderella. I’m not normally nice and demure so when I’m in that role, I have to change the way I act. I only really notice the audience during the final bow. The stage lights are shining, emotions are brimming, and everyone is looking at me and congratulating me for overcoming every obstacle to become the character. It’s pure happiness. It tells me that all my efforts have been worth it.

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What can be done to popularize ballet in Vietnam?

DN: In Europe, there’s an upper class. In Vietnam, it’s mostly agricultural, so people don’t know much about ballet. That said, the art scene is much better in HCMC. If this performance happened in Hanoi, you wouldn’t be able to sell tickets like here. Even if you gave tickets away, it would be hard to get people to come. In Hanoi, it’s more traditional, old school. In HCMC, people like the arts culture having gone through the French and the Americans.

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What is it about ballet that fuels you and what has ballet given you in return?

MT: It’s a difficult discipline so I like it. It’s a little like figure skating or artistic gymnastics; it’s not just technical, how many turns you can do, or how high or how strong or how beautiful you are. It’s telling a story with your body. Ballet has given me so much: a career, a goal in life, a living. I want to show Vietnamese people that ballet has a place in life and to foreigners, that Vietnam also has ballet.

DN: Ballet chose me; I didn’t choose ballet. Ballet has given me a different life. If I wasn’t a dancer, I don’t know what I would’ve been…

MT: Probably a farmer. [both laugh]

Minh Tu and Duc Nhuan will reprise their roles in performances of Cinderella on October 13 and 14 at the Saigon Opera House. For info and tickets, visit www.hbso.org.vn

Images by Nam Quan