Chun Wai Chan Gets Candid About His Recent Career Move to New York City Ballet
In October, New York City Ballet announced that former Houston Ballet principal Chun Wai Chan would be joining the company as a soloist for the 2021–22 season. Born and trained in Guangzhou, China, Chan moved to the U.S. to join Houston Ballet II in 2010, joining the main company’s corps de ballet in 2012. With his princely good looks, polished technique and striking confidence, Chan became a Houston favorite and was named one of Dance Magazine‘s 2017 “25 to Watch.” Recently, he spoke with Pointe about his upcoming move to New York, embracing the challenge of a new style, and his Balanchine bucket list.
First off, congratulations on the New York City Ballet job. Of course, we will miss you in Houston. How are you? Where are you?
Mentally, I am so happy. I am back in Guangdong with my family, and it’s so wonderful to be here with them. I am doing great.
How are you keeping in shape?
I have been lucky to be invited to be part of a TV show here. It’s called Dance Smash and it’s definitely keeping me in shape. I am dancing with Yuan Yuan Tan from San Francisco Ballet. It’s pretty intense and includes all types of dance, like folk, ballroom and hip hop. It’s a good opportunity to educate people here about ballet.
Was NYCB your dream company?
I am still so overwhelmed. But, actually, The Royal Ballet was my dream company. After competing at the Prix de Lausanne, I was offered a scholarship to go to the School of American Ballet summer intensive and Houston Ballet, and I decided to come to Houston.
So you have a redo on that fork in your ballet road. But let’s talk Balanchine, because there’s a lot of that in your future.
Definitely, there will be catching up. I know I have a lot to learn. But I am excited for the challenge to learn a new style, and I will adapt quickly. I like how they play with musicality, and the speed and the jumping. I cannot wait to move with them.
Also, every time there was a Balanchine ballet in Houston, I danced it: Serenade, Symphony in C, The Four Temperaments and then “Diamonds,” when I was in HB II.
Which Balanchine ballet tops your bucket list?
I hope to someday dance Apollo. It’s so elegant, with such amazing music. There is no other ballet like it.
How did you connect with the company?
I met Justin Peck when he came to set a work on Houston Ballet. Justin recommended me to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. After they saw my video, they invited me to take class for three days in January. During that time I learned a lot, talking to dancers and staff and reading the history. It’s such a big company with a long history.
After three weeks, I got a soloist offer and took a week to consider my options. I knew Balanchine would be a new style for me. I am willing to try to learn. Also, I will be the only man from mainland China in the company—it’s huge to say that a Chinese dancer could dance Balanchine and join New York City Ballet.
That’s very interesting about the Peck connection. I loved your dancing in his
Year of the Rabbit and Reflections at Houston Ballet.
His work feels so new and playful, and he has such a clear style. And I appreciate how he creates on the dancers. For the world premiere Reflections, I felt like it was Chun Wai Chan + Justin Peck. I could express the way I wanted to, and every show was different.
There’s probably more Peck in your future, along with many other new choreographers. Have you been tuning in to NYCB’s New Works Festival?
How did your time at Houston Ballet prepare you for this move?
I cannot imagine where I would be without Houston Ballet. It was a perfect company for me. I learned how to be a good dancer and to dance any kind of movement. That’s why I am not afraid to leave. But it really started with Claudio Muñoz while I was in HB II. He taught me to act and partner in a way that was so real. It was endless learning. No other company could have done so much.
You had such a stellar run in Houston. Do you have any highlights of your time here?
Yes, so many. But the first big moment was when I almost quit to go to the University of Arizona during my first year with the company, after an injury. I was ready to go and had received a full scholarship. It was my director, Stanton Welch, who convinced me to stay and learn how to train hard and smart. He taught me that we have to take the responsibility to be healthy. I remember seeing my name on the fifth cast to learn Romeo and I was so happy, so after a night of thinking, I realized that I want to dance. Stanton brought me back from almost quitting. He saw something in me that nobody could see, including myself. I got promoted very quickly after that.
What does your family think about the move? And are you ready for New York City?
My family is completely supportive. They want me to continue to grow from new challenges. As for New York City, I am from China. I am used to huge cities, with big buildings and tons of people. In fact, Hong Kong is just like New York City. I fell in love with the city when I was there. I won’t have any problems adapting to it.
What have you learned about yourself during the pandemic?
To be patient and positive, and if a door closes a window might open. Always seek opportunities for learning and growing. We don’t have to stop.