Soloist in the Australian Ballet, Chengwu Guo began dance classes at a humble local dance studio in his hometown of Jiujiang, Jiangxi in South China. At the ripe age of eleven, he auditioned for and was accepted into the prestigious Beijing Dance Academy, where over seven arduous years of training, he honed a natural talent for ballet.
In 2006, Chengwu Guo became a prize-winner at the distinguished Prix de Lausanne Competition in Switzerland, receiving a full scholarship to complete his training. The scholarship gave him the right to join any ballet school in the world, and he chose The Australian Ballet.
Choosing to study at The Australian Ballet was certainly the right choice for Chengwu Guo. After one year’s training with the Company, he was talent-spotted by Director Bruce Beresford to star in the critically acclaimed film, Mao’s Last Dancer.
In August, The Australian Ballet presents The Dancer’s Company in Don Quixote. Chengwu Guo will dance the lead role of Basilio. He will be dancing alongside dance icon Stephen Heathcote, who joins the regional tour to perform the title role, Don Quixote.
Chengwu Guo is a massive star on the rise and one to watch. Karen Farrell spoke to him about his training and impending performance in Don Quixote.
Tell me about the seven years of training you underwent at the Beijing Dance Academy …
The seven years were pretty tough. I started getting trained as a professional dancer when I was eleven. Dancers start training at approximately fifteen in Australia, but in China it’s more Russian-style … We start from a very basic level, but the workload is a lot.
You showed a talent for ballet very early on. What appealed to you about ballet as compared to some of the other styles?
When I auditioned for the Beijing Dance Academy, I auditioned for two styles of dance, because at the time I was eleven and I didn’t know what ballet or Traditional Chinese Dance was. Unfortunately, I didn’t get through with the Traditional Chinese Dance, so I only had one chance left, which was ballet.
There are necessary ingredients, such as having a strong core, back, legs and feet to be a good dancer. One also needs to be flexible and be graceful.
What else does it take to make a magnificent ballet dancer?
My suggestion is to practice in the ‘right’ way, and in a smart way, and to work hard.
What do you mean by the ‘right way’?
The right way means that as a ballet dancer, when we practice and look at ourselves in the mirror sometimes we can’t notice what problems there might be. You need to get someone to watch you, and this is what teachers do. The teacher will tell you which part isn’t right and how to fix it. If you keep practicing and get right the corrections, then your muscles will grow and your body will change into a nice shape and you get strong. If you always make mistakes, you learn bad habits … and it gets worse.
At the age of 16, you won a scholarship at the prestigious Prix de Luasanne Competition in Switzerland, which gave you the right to join any ballet school in the world. Why did you choose to take up a scholarship with The Australian Ballet School?
At the time of winning the award, I only knew of the Beijing Dance Academy and a few dance companies in China. I had no idea about what other country’s companies were like, and I asked my teacher where I should go to study. She said, “Go to Australia”. I didn’t even have a second thought about it.
Could you speak English at the time and if not, how challenging was it to move to Australia to study while not being able to initially speak the language or understand the culture?
No. I didn’t understand any English. It was pretty hard at the very beginning, but I guess the best way to learn English or a new language is to live in the country.
The Film Mao’s Last Dancer is based on the story of famous Chinese dancer, Li Cunxin, who defected from the Republic of China in 1981, eventually ending up at with the Australian Ballet as Principal artist. His story became the award-wining film, Mao’s Last Dancer, in which you played the teenage Li. What was it like to work on a film?
It was an awesome experience for me. The movie happened when I was only in my second year in Australia, so I was really surprised when Bruce Beresford asked me to do the film. Li Cunxin and Bruce came to my graduation performance following my first year’s training at the Australian Ballet School. Li explained to me that Bruce wanted to do a movie about his book, and he introduced us. I remember Bruce said to me, “I want you to be Li Cunxin in the movie. We are looking for someone who can speak English and who is also a very talented dancer.” I was like, “Yes, of course I will do it”. I never expected it to happen in my whole life.
I read that Li Cunixn considers your journey to be very similar to his, having studied at the same school.
Yes, I think that’s why he kind of sees me as his son. He was very generous and always so kind. He is the best mentor for me.
Acting in a film would have opened you up to a whole new range as a performer … how important is it for you as a dancer to not just have physical ability, but to have a great emotional depth as well (which some dancers can miss)?
I think that it’s so important. It is one of the most important things for my dancing career. I had to do some acting lessons with Bruce, who was giving me the lessons, teaching me how to act. I probably had a month’s training with him, and I realised this is how we actually should act.
What were some of the keys acting tips that Bruce gave you?
It’s so simple. He just said you just have to be natural. Normal. It worked out really well, and I am still using this in my ballet career.
Why do you think Don Quixote is such a universally loved novel?
Don Quixote is my favourite ballet. I fully decided to do ballet because I watched Don Quixote. I watched the Baryshnikov DVD, and he was amazing in it, and I realised I really wanted to do ballet – and it’s why I have kept going until now.
Why do you think so many other people love Don Quixote so much – could it be because it’s a little bit cheeky and mischievous and a whole lot of fun?
It’s a combination of love, beauty and fun. It’s these three things together, and everyone loves beautiful stuff. It also explains very well what people normally do in every day life, and I feel people can really relate to it. I think people will always be moved by the music.
Tell us about your role of Basilio …
I’m performing the principal role of Basilio. I have never done the full-length Don Quixote before … this time it’s a big challenge for me to pull out a full-length, three-hour ballet and to explain the principal and Spanish character to everyone. Basilio has a very funny sense of humour and is very manly.
In a major coup for The Dancers Company, former Principal Artist of The Australian Ballet, Steven Heathcote, has been announced as part of the cast, performing the title role of Don Quixote. Will you have much interaction with Stephen Heathcote?
Yes, on stage whenever I have a problem he is going to help me (laughs). It’s going to be brilliant working with Stephen Heathcote. In the whole of Australia, he was a star. It’s amazing to work with people like him. It’s a career highlight for me.
This story was published in issue 65 of the Manning-Great Lakes Focus