Friday, December 7, 2012
Canadian Immigrant Magazine
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She’s come a long way from Dalian, China, where Yu was born and began her ballet training as a child.
Showing promise early on, her parents sent her to ballet boarding school, the Shen Yang School of Dance, at the age of eight. It isn’t unusual for Chinese children to begin such intense training at an early age, where discipline and hard work are expected, but that didn’t stop Yu from crying her way through her first year.
“I started training professionally when I was eight at a boarding school away from my parents. Imagine that. I didn’t know anything and I was youngest in class. I cried every day,” says Yu, taking time for this interview in between doing run-throughs of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the day before the company leaves on tour to Los Angeles to perform the piece, in which Yu plays the Queen of Hearts.
“So many times, I begged my mother to take me home … But my teacher insisted I would become somebody in the ballet world. Then my mom had to convince me. I said, ‘You don’t love me,’ and she replied, ‘It’s for your own good.’”
Yu stayed for the next couple of years, only seeing her family on holidays. “I started to see that my teacher was right. I did have this instinct [for ballet]. I was very quick at picking things up. I knew then ballet was the direction that I wanted to go.”
By the age of 13 or 14, she went on to the Beijing Dance Academy, where she continued to blossom as a dancer. But her big Canadian break came in Switzerland where she was taking part in a prestigious ballet competition in Lausanne. “I met Mavis [Staines], the National Ballet School principal, and she offered me a scholarship to come study in Canada.”
She was only 17.
She celebrated her 18th birthday in Canada. “Everyone at the [National Ballet] school sang the birthday song for me.”
But Yu, who understood little English — “when I first came, all I knew was ‘thank you’ and ‘please’” — was overwhelmed.
“I was in such a culture shock,” she says, noting there was only one other international student from Japan there at the time. “The only time I felt comfortable was when I was doing ballet. The language of ballet, the exercise, that’s where I felt familiar. Everything else, the language culture, people, city, were completely different than what I had known. For three months, I didn’t really speak.”
She became very shy because of the language barrier, even though the other students were nice and tried to involve her in their activities. “Then I started to speak [English] and I felt more comfortable, but I still felt very shy; I was not quite sure if I was speaking the right way. I wondered ‘Will people laugh at me?’”
They didn’t laugh at her, but they did notice her. After only one year, Yu joined the National Ballet company as an as apprentice and became a member of the corps in 1997. She was appointed to the top rank of principal dancer in 2000, and has been performing lead roles in a variety of classical and contemporary repertory ever since. While many ballet dancers move from company to company around the world, Yu knew that she wanted to stay in Canada, not just for the National Ballet, but for the country.
“I knew I wanted to stay; it was difficult enough for me to get over the culture shock the first time,” she says with a laugh. “Plus, I really enjoy the company, and I found Canada is a great country to live in, with all its great benefits and multiculturalism.”
Yu also started a family in Canada, further rooting her to the country. “After I had my family, got married and had my first daughter, to be honest, I felt like I’m a true Canadian now. Where my daughter was born, I really felt settled that this will be home.” Yu has an eight-year-old daughter and a baby girl with her Chinese-born husband, Shuang.
Her mother was recently visiting from China, helping Yu with the baby while she rehearses and performs in the company’s winter season, in which she plays several lead roles, including the Snow Queen in holiday favourite The Nutcracker and the title role in Giselle this December, following her stint in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
“It will be hard after my mom leaves, as she takes care of the baby and I don’t have to worry,” says Yu, adding that she’s disappointed in the pause in the parental sponsorship immigration program as she was hoping to sponsor her parents to Canada. “Having that family support is important,” she says.
When not on tour, Yu’s day is filled with dance. “We have our ballet class at 10 a.m., which we do every day, and rehearsal starts at 11:30 a.m. We have an hour break from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. and work until 6:30 p.m.”
A principal dancer with the company for 12 years now, Yu could be considered near the end of her ballet career. “I’ve been a principal dancer since 2000, so I can say I have lots of ballet experience, but there are some still dancing who were there first,” she says. “I think it’s such an individual thing. To me, if one day I wake up and dance can’t bring me the joy it does now, then I know it’s time to finish. I can’t really know. I also don’t want to finish when I start to go downhill. I want to finish at my peak.”
For now, Yu says, “I love to do what I do.” And she advises other immigrants to go after their dreams, too.
“Whether you have a dream or goal, never give that up. Work hard toward it and you will succeed. Work hard and the opportunity will present itself to you.”
And, recalling her own experiences as a newcomer, she also advises: don’t be shy.
“Don’t be too shy to speak out or be worried that people will laugh at you. Just speak what’s on your mind. Be open and try to involve yourself into the community. For example, our culture can be very ‘closed-door’ and ‘inside’ with the family. But if you get involved, meet new people and get more information, you’ll feel you’re part of something, instead of just trying to survive something.”