Frances Chung on Taking Ballet Seriously—But Not Too Seriously

December 11, 2023

After joining San Francisco Ballet in 2001, Frances Chung quickly became one to watch, rising to principal dancer in 2009. Her incredible versatility, dynamic presence, and pristine technique make her the ballerina choreographers want to work with. Now, the mother of two still treasures every learning experience she has when she steps into the studio.

Give us a brief background of your training and progression as a dancer.

I trained at a then relatively small school in Vancouver called Goh Ballet. I had great training in many different styles—Royal Academy of Dance, Cuban, Russian, guest [teachers] with French influence, contemporary, jazz, Chinese dance, flamenco—I did all of it and I loved it.

When I first joined SFB, it was a big change. I didn’t know how to work in a company. Because my training was within a small school, I was used to doing principal parts; I had no training when it came to the corps de ballet. I remember SFB did Symphony in C, and I had never moved that fast in my life! After that, Swan Lake. It was a huge adjustment, very humbling and eye-opening—it was a whole different way of dancing, learning to move as one.

It seems rare to stay with one company for your whole career. What has kept you with San Francisco Ballet?

As a dancer it’s hard to be satisfied, but eventually I realized that the work that I wanted to do—the rep—was here. And my experiences. We’ve gotten to tour to a lot of places. I’ve had a lot of chances to get a taste of other companies by working with choreographers. When Christopher Wheeldon was choreographing Cinderella, they sent two couples to Amsterdam, as half was created at Dutch National and half here. Then, when Liam Scarlett was creating Frankenstein for Royal Ballet and SFB, we spent time working with him there. Very special experiences.

Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh perform the Black Swan pas de deux onstage during a performance. Walsh, in a black tunic, gray pants and black boots, kneels in profile on his left knee and holds Chung's waist. Chung, in a black tutu and crown, does a penché on pointe with her left leg in attitude and reaches her arms slightly back. They look at each other, their faces close to touching.
Chung and Joseph Walsh in Helgi Tomasson’s Swan Lake. Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB.

You excel in so many different styles—where does your adaptability comes from?

A lot comes from my training. But I also attribute it to the rep we do at SFB, all the different choreographers we work with—even in classics. For example, recently Julio Bocca was here for Swan Lake. He opened a whole new world of classical ballet to me. Swan Lake has never felt natural—finding Odette/Odile inside me has always been difficult. But in working with him, I’ve had a big breakthrough. He helped me find myself, and the human quality, inside that role.

How did becoming a mother the first time change you as a dancer?

When I first joined the company, there were quite a few dancer moms. I remember watching them have a kid, then come back and be absolutely incredible. That gave me encouragement to start a family. There’s a sense of freedom you gain when you have a child, a perspective shift—all of a sudden ballet, instead of feeling like something you’re chained to, is a place you find freedom. Our work [as dancers] is so introspective, you’re constantly working on yourself.  When you have kids and a family, it’s not about self.

What are some of your favorite roles?

Anytime I’ve worked with William Forsythe or on his ballets, I’ve had breakthroughs. I also really like performing roles I feel natural in—easygoing, comedic ones like Kitri or Swanilda. As I’ve matured as an artist, I’ve been enjoying roles that I have to search my soul a bit more for. I am exploring a different side of me that, for a long time, I was yearning for but didn’t know how to access. 

What’s been your biggest hurdle as a dancer?

I’m always up for a challenge, so I don’t think of it as a bad thing—less of a hurdle and more of something I don’t like that I have to deal with. The biggest, though, would be that dancer mentality—when you just spiral and you’re internalizing, beating yourself up over little things. That is the hardest. Insecurities. Get out of that—enjoy it, be in it.

Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh dance a pas de deux onstage during a performance. Chung, in a blue leotard and skirt, lunges forward on pointe, reaching her right arm out as Walsh holds her around the waist and across her right shoulder. Walsh wears dark pants, sneakers and a green short-sleeved shirt. They both look towards downstage left with intensity.
Chung and Walsh in the “Colour in Anything” pas de deux from William Forsythe’s Blake Works I. Photo by Chris Hardy, courtesy SFB.

What advice would you have for students wanting to be professional dancers?

Don’t take ballet too seriously, but take it seriously enough to be disciplined and work hard.  Find that balance. Go in, work, really submerse yourself in it, but then once in while take a breath, go have some pancakes, go for a hike. Also, it’s okay to take time off.

Do you have a secret hobby or talent?

I wish. My secret hobby would be watching hip-hop dance, and my secret-wish talent would be to be a hip-hop dancer.

What does your typical day off look like?

Besides cooking, cleaning, and changing diapers, I might go to Golden Gate Park with my family, ride bikes, have a picnic, enjoy the fresh air. I don’t need too much.