Boston Ballet’s Junxiong Zhao dances to his own beat

Junxiong Zhao in George Balanchine’s “Donizetti Variations.” (Image courtesy of Rosalie O’Connor for Boston Ballet.)

Before Boston Ballet principal dancer Junxiong Zhao found his passion in dance, he developed a love for fiery hot pot.

Boston Ballet principal dancer Junxiong Zhao performs with Ji Young Chae in Marius Petipa’s “The Sleeping Beauty.” (Image courtesy of Liza Voll for Boston Ballet.)

“I miss hot pot so much,” Zhao said, who grew up in Chongqing, China.

Zhao was promoted to principal dancer in February, after starting in the corps in 2014. He expands the company’s Asian and Asian American principal dancers to five, including Lia Cirio, who is half Filipino; Seo Hye Han of Korea; Misa Kuranaga of Japan; and Derek Lam, whose parents are Vietnamese immigrants. The company’s 65 dancers are of 16 nationalities.

“Boston Ballet is a prestigious company with a different repertoire every season, so I was exposed to many styles,” Zhao said. “It was an adjustment for me as a classically trained dancer, branching out into modern and contemporary dance, but I enjoyed learning and challenging myself.”

As a little boy, Zhao loved dancing — he’d hear music and immediately start grooving. His parents enrolled him in dance classes at age 7 and at age 11, he auditioned for the Shanghai East Ballet School. When he was 17, he won a senior gold medal at the Youth America Grand Prix Semi-finals and a scholarship to The Washington Ballet School. After a year, he joined the Washington Ballet Studio Company and danced with Ballet Arizona for two years, before arriving in Boston.

“I came to Boston Ballet to improve myself and expand my horizons,” Zhao said. “Ballet is exacting and there are always things to improve.”

In the obsessive search for perfection, Zhao will spend hours practicing the same motions, working with dance partners and trying to convey his character’s emotions. Every movement, no matter how excruciating, must look effortless.

“Ballet is like a silent play,” he said. “In your expressions and actions, you speak to your duet partner heart-to-heart. You use body language so the audience understands what you’re saying.”

Zhao visits Chinatown when he feels homesick, not far from Boston Ballet’s South End headquarters and the Boston Opera House. While most people think dancers must starve themselves, male ballet dancers can eat heartily, to be strong enough to lift ballerinas.

“I really like Taiwan Café, even if it’s not Chongqing food, for authentic Taiwanese cuisine. Dumpling Café is another favorite. When I crave hot pot, I enjoy Shabu Zen,” Zhao said.

Since coming to America, Zhao has not performed on a Chinese stage and hopes to tour internationally one day. He visits his family each year, enjoying his beloved hot pot and Chongqing street food.

“My father’s friends are less familiar with ballet, so they’ll ask if I wear pointe shoes,” Zhao said of ballet’s iconic toe shoes. “I have to tell them male ballet dancers don’t wear them.”

For aspiring dancers, Zhao urges them to express themselves. A tall dancer may move slower but put a different spin on a role.

“Find your own niche,” Zhao said. “Don’t be exactly like me, although I can share my story. But dance your own style. Every dancer is unique.”

Zhao will perform in “The Nutcracker” from Nov. 24 to Dec. 31. For more information, visit www.bostonballet.org.

Junxiong Zhao in Jorma Elo’s “Fifth Symphony of Jean Sibelius.” (Image courtesy of Rosalie O’Connor for Boston Ballet.)

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About Ling-Mei Wong 黃靈美

Editor of the Sampan, the only bilingual Chinese-English newspaper in New England
舢舨報紙總編輯。舢舨是全紐英倫唯一的中英雙語雙週報。

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