Has there ever been an art form more deceptively beautiful than ballet? It’s a sport (and yes, we would use the word sport because of the sheer athleticism required) that demands grace, poise, the appearance of looking effortless, and mobility of facial expressions.
At professional dancer Kwok Min Yi’s photoshoot, we watch as she rises up on her toes (this is called going en pointe, where all your body weight is on the tips of your toes). She moves across the floor, arms extended, face devoid of any strain. Is she in pain? We’d never know, because she would never show us.
Because ballet is a fantasy – think the whimsical quality of The Nutcracker, the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty, the drama of Swan Lake. And it was precisely this quality of magic that made Min Yi, who is one of five female First Artists in Singapore Dance Theatre, fall in love with dance. “When I’m dancing, I am living in the moment,” she describes.
“In a story ballet, when I’m playing a character, I’m not me anymore. It is just the audience and the character that I portray and I try to bring them into the fantasy world that my character is living in.
Her name may be known in the dance circles, but by age 17, the public first heard of Min Yi when she emerged as a finalist in the prestigious Genée International Ballet Competition. The Genée, held in Singapore that year, has been in existence since 1931, and past medallists have gone on to glittering careers.
Min Yi was the first Singaporean to be selected as one of 12 finalists, beating 53 other dancers from around the world. By November 2012, she was an apprentice with Singapore Dance Theatre, and worked her way up to Artist by January 2014.
Min Yi has was promoted to First Artist this year (which means more opportunities to perform solo roles), and made her debut role as heroine Kitri in the March production of Don Quixote. This weekend (July 12-14), you can catch her at Ballet Under the Stars at Fort Canning Green.
Living the childhood dream
She started dancing at the age of four, after her parents started bringing her along to her older sister’s ballet class. “There was one time I accompanied my sister for her ballet class and was watching the students in the class from the window and tried to follow what they were doing,” she remembers.
“When the class ended, the teacher came out of the studio and asked if I wanted to take the next class, which was a pre-primary class. I did, and one thing led to another – and now I’m here.”
To become a professional dancer, she left home for London’s English National Ballet School after secondary school. It was a hard-earned place that she had won when she was 16. The director of the school held an audition in Singapore, which Min Yi went for, and she was the only Singaporean in the entire school in her three years there.
“I had so much to learn, but I loved it,” she says. “Living in the hostel, I had to learn how to cook, and even take the bus – my dad was the one who would send me to classes in Singapore.”
She adds: “I was with people who had a common goal, and most of our families were far back home so we turned to one other and become a family.”
Min Yi recounts a gruelling timetable: classes start at 8.30am and end at 6.30pm, and they include pointe class, and pas de deux (partner) classes. Academics include lessons on musicality and dance history.
“I knew that I had to work hard and everyone around me was encouraging. No one was giving up,” she says.
The end goal was also the first step into being a professional dancer: to land a job after graduation. “There are so many ballet schools around the world and every year there are people graduating – but not the same number of people retiring. So the places are very limited.”
Coming home to Singapore
For Min Yi, there was no question in coming back to Singapore to get that coveted job. “Singapore is my home, so no matter where I was, I knew that I would want to come back.”
Life at the Singapore Dance Theatre is a full day of work. Dancers start at 10am, and finish at 5.30pm. Between every hour of practice is a five-minute break, and a lunch break in the middle of the day. The very thought of dancing continually for hours is intimidating, but Min Yi is sanguine.
“I just tell myself to keep going, and not to stop,” she says, matter-of-factly. “You do need a lot of mental strength to keep pushing your body, and sometimes your body does want to give up. But you have to keep yourself motivated. You have to better yourself every day.”
It’s easy enough to see that Min Yi feels much more comfortable on the dance floor than the prospect of interviews. It’s not that she isn’t confident – she would just much rather let her face and body do the talking.
“Dance is all expression and body language,” she explains. When she rehearses for a character role, she practises her facial movements before the mirror, because “sometimes, you think you’re expressing, but it doesn’t always come across.” She also records herself at practice sessions so she can go home and examine what looks good, and what doesn’t.
Self-care is a job
The biggest challenge is to remain injury-free. “It can happen to anyone at any time – you can tear a muscle or fracture a bone, and sometimes it’s out of your control.” Every dancer has had injuries at some point.
Every night, Min Yi works on muscle recovery. Sometimes she puts her feet in an ice bucket, tolerating the freezing cold for 15 minutes (this helps release the circulation after all the compression from the pointe shoes). Another trick is to lie down and put her feet up against wall to help blood flow.
In the two and a half months of preparation, Min Yi focused on building her stamina – Don Quixote was her first full length classical ballet, comprising three acts. In the day, she would work on strengthening her muscles, and after work she would focus on resting so her muscles have time to recover for the next show.
“Ballet is one of my top priorities so of course, it will take up most of my time. I don’t feel like it’s a sacrifice,” she says. “I have time on the weekends to spend time with family, to rest, to go out with friends.”
She adds: “People always ask if we have a full time job, and if dance is just something that we do on the side. What we do is a full-time job.”
Ballet Under the Stars
Date: July 12 – 14
Venue: Fort Canning Green
Tickets: $40 on Sistic.com.sg