Born in 1992 in Huizhou in Guangdong province, ballet dancer Chen Zhenwei’s love for dance began in kindergarten. His parents had hoped for him to go to college and get a high-paying job, but from the age of 11 he spent six years training at the Guangzhou Art School with the dream of one day becoming a principal dancer.
As a finalist at the 2010 Prix de Lausanne international competition for aspiring professionals, he received a full scholarship from the Houston Ballet Academy to study with their second company. In 2012, he then joined the Houston Ballet corps de ballet, achieving his lifelong ambition by rising to become principal dancer in 2017 (here he followed in the footsteps of Li Cunxin who was also principal dancer for the Houston company and whose story is told in the bestselling book Mao’s Last Dancer). “Dreams do come true,” Chen said in an interview with Xinhua in 2018.
Why is he in the news?
In August 2021, Chen became a soloist at the New York City Ballet. The company is notoriously difficult to get into; 95% of its dancers rise into its ranks from the School of American Ballet, meaning only 5% of the company’s coveted places are available to other entrants.
This year, on May 20, the New York City Ballet announced Chen’s promotion to principal dancer, making him the first Chinese principal in the company’s 74-year history.“It feels unreal,” Chen said. “I’m still kind of shaking.”
His boosters say Chen’s promotion boils down to his hard work and making the most of every opportunity. At the start of this year, he had been ill and missed a week’s worth of performances. On his second day back at work, a dancer with the company injured his back, and Chen had to step in, performing his part with only an hour to learn the choreography. He did so well enough to convince the company directors that he had the requisite qualities of a principal dancer.
After the news was announced, Chen took to social media – where he is known as the “Prince of Ballet”– proudly posting on weibo: “I have become the first Chinese principal of my company. I will continue to work hard. This marks a new starting point in my career. Thank you all for the encouragement and support!”
“I hope my journey will encourage other young Asian dancers with the dream of emerging on the world stage,” he added, to the admiration of Chinese netizens. “His dancing figure walks through a stage dominated by blonde hair and blue eyes,” commented one weibo user. “His outstanding performance transcends race, skin colour, background, and connections, bringing his own world to the international dance stage and illustrating a wonderful artistic life,” wrote another netizen.
The plaudits came thick and fast from the media too. Elle China wrote that Chen “shines his own unique light on the modern dance world” through his “attention to detail and unremitting pursuit of excellence”.
“He has the face of a prince and rock-solid technique,” added 36Kr, a Chinese news site.
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