I had a wonderful visit with Jun Shuang Huang, Houston Ballet's newest principal. It didn't seem to matter that I don't speak or understand a word of Chinese. With new apprentice Liao Xiang translating, there was such a spirit of communication in the room.
Imagine cultural diplomacy happening right here in Houston Ballet's conference room. The arts are such a conduit for international exchange.
This weekend, Huang performs his first Nutcracker at Wortham Theater Center. So when you see him as the Nutcracker Prince, he will be dancing in a ballet he has never seen live before.
"We don't do Nutcracker in China, nor do we celebrate Christmas. We do have Chinese New Year though," adds Huang, eager to tell his story. "Also, we don't usually perform ballets for small children."
Watching Huang and Liao talk back and forth added such suspense to the interview. I have no idea of the actual content of the ideas flying back and forth, but know there was lots of laughing, smiling and attention to getting it right.
Also in the room with us was Huang's Sugar Plum Fairy, Katharine Precourt, who first performed Nutcracker at age four.
"I can hardly remember not doing Nutcracker. This is my fourth year in Sugar Plum, which is a such great role. I am always finding new things in the part," says Precourt, the subject of my "On The Rise" story in Dance Magazine a while back. "He's a great partner. Because of my height, we fit so well together. Really, there's been no shock going into this. Language is not really an issue either. We can tell if something is not quite right."
To prepare, Huang read the E.T.A. Hoffman book The Nutcracker is based on and put in serious YouTube time.
"I love it. It's such a Western story and an important part of ballet in America. The Prince is a great role, he takes Clara on the entire journey," he says. "In China, our training is so classically oriented. We are trained to be princes."
With his elegant elongated lines, chiseled high cheek bones and polished technique, Huang is about as princely as it gets.
The Shanghai native arrived with some impressive ballet stats, including the Bounty Award for Ballet Couple at the Varna Ballet International Competition in 2008 and the Gold Prize, Senior Division at the Helsinki Ballet International Competition in 2009. He trained as an honor student at the Shanghai Dance School before joining the Guangzhou Ballet.
I couldn't resist the Mao's Last Dancer question.
"Yes, I read the book and saw the movie," Huang says, "It was so meaningful to me because, although it's not my story, my parents and grandparents lived through this time. I was inspired by the book. Also, Li and I had the same teacher for a while."
Huang remembers his first days in Houston as a bit disorienting.
"I felt like a newborn baby, I knew nothing and no one," he says. "I had no family here other than my wife. Transportation was a problem too. I have a car now, so I can finally get around and that's been great. Houston drivers are so much better than Chinese drivers.
"I think this is an excellent city for artists."
Although Huang danced numerous roles during his time at the Guangzhou Ballet, he was ready to spread his wings.
"There's mostly classical in China. I wanted to dance contemporary work," he says.
After sending his DVD to many ballet companies, Huang received several job offers, finally settling on Houston. "Houston Ballet is famous in China, because of Ben Stevenson, Li Cunxin and Zhang Jian," he says. "The company has a great reputation."
Huang jumped in full force with contemporary ballets, tackling Jiri Kylian's Forgotten Land, Stanton Welch's Tutu and "Diamonds" in Balanchine's Jewels.
"I had done a tiny bit of Balanchine before. But I loved Stanton's Tutu, because I had to move so quickly. It was not easy at all. In China, they never give tall dancers fast roles, just tall people stuff," he says, laughing. "I found Forgotten Land the most challenging for me because I had never performed that kind of movement before."
Huang's streamlined virtuosity and chemistry with Mireille "Mimi" Hassenboehler during Forgotten Land made for one memorable intro to the new guy. The dancer appears to thrive on new ballets.
During Houston Ballet's annual Jubilee of Dance on Dec. 3, Huang will perform a mix of classical and contemporary work, including the pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty, Raymonda and Welch's whirlwind ballet, Velocity.
Huang finds the vibe at Houston Ballet distinctly different. "In China, the emphasis is on always pushing your technique. Here, it's more relaxed, more about the desire to dance."
Although it's been less than a year since Huang left Shanghai, he seems to be settling in with a robust enthusiasm for all things new.
"The whole company is so helpful. If there is something I don't understand everyone pitches in to help," he says. "I want to especially mention Mimi. I was so lucky to have her as my first partner. She is so wonderful. Everyone has been so patient and welcoming at Houston Ballet. I am so thankful to be here."
Watch Jun Shuang Haung and Mireille Hassenboehler in George Balanchine's "Diamonds" section of Jewels: