Frances Chung, principal dancer at San Francisco Ballet, is seated in a flat side split, bendily warming up. Her beloved chihuahua, Iggy, finds a place to rest on the nearest tutu. “He’s very comfortable in the studio,” Chung laughs.
Chung, who joined SFB in 2001, is coming into her 16th season with the company; her sixth year as principal. Her repertoire is rich, having danced major roles in the company’s extensive classical repertoire, as well as work by the world’s foremost living choreographers William Forsythe, Alexei Ratmansky, Wayne McGregor, amongst others.
For the Vancouver-born dancer, landing a contract with the prized company was mostly a matter of serendipity. “I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know anything about professional dance prior to joining a company,” the same radiant grin makes an appearance.
Chung trained at the Goh Ballet Academy in Vancouver, and while a student had the opportunity to dance the Russian Girl in George Balanchine’s “Serenade” set by Balanchine répétiteur Elyse Borne. From that experience, she made the Californian connection. “Elyse Borne was ballet mistress [at SFB] at the time I was auditioning so I knew her, and I knew for some reason I wanted to stay in North America.
“There was a moment in my career when I wanted to move to Europe, but that moment, I was 17, I wanted to be relatively close to home.”
San Francisco she regards as the birthplace of her career, and homelife. Yet, she almost ended up on the other side of the country. “I almost joined Boston Ballet. I did a summer programme there when I was 16 and they asked me to join the studio company. My mother was like, absolutely not, you’re finishing high school.
“The year after I got accepted to Boston Ballet and I had the contract signed. Then SFB called back the day we were going to mail the contract.”
And the rest is history. The petite Chung, with her steely technique and extension for days, has often been called upon for the more classical of roles. In the past season, Chung unleashed another side of her dancing self, performing in the company’s premiere of “Frankenstein,” choreographed by Liam Scarlett.
“Generally I’m cast to do a lot of technical parts, coz I’m kinda shorter and my body lends itself to that, but it’s nice because “Frankenstein” allows me explore that other part of ballet.
“For me I think, as I’ve been in this profession for a while, at this point in my career, I look forward to developing my artistry and that side of things.”
Having worked with Scarlett for two previous ballets set on SFB, “Fearful Symmetries” (2016) and “Hummingbird,” (2014) Chung is finding depth in the choreographic relationship. “Having that relationship with him makes all the difference—then of course the fact that he’s a genius.
“You can always feel an emotion but to be able to express it with your physical body is another thing. Liam taught me a lot about how to express it physically; even the slightest opening of the hand, or the slightest tilt of the head changes everything.”
Iggy is not the only one who is at home in studio. “I think I would be happy just going through the rehearsal process,” she says, adding,“I also think in the studio, we are more ourselves, wearing the clothes we’re comfortable in; no spotlights, no sidelights. There’s a sense of collaboration. I enjoy all of that.
“In terms of watching dance, same thing, I much prefer rehearsal. Sets and costumes are distracting to me. I know it’s supposed to bring the whole thing together, but maybe you get to use more imagination when you’re watching in the studio? I like things slightly unfinished.”
Sets and costumes might be an afterthought for Chung, but music is a driving force. “Music is everything. I most enjoy watching dance when you can see the music in the movement.”
Nevertheless the stage beckons. “When you can bring a little bit of the studio to the stage,” she says, “when I have a strong connection with my partner, and then through that, being comfortable and relaxed. Generally I’m still very nervous before going on stage, and I think that’s important for what we do. If we’re not nervous, it’s probably time to move on! But when you can bring the comfort to the stage and not worry too much, that’s the best feeling.”
In any given season, dancers at SFB perform a remarkably wide range of choreography, and being versed in international styles of ballet is a boon. “I was trained by a Chinese teachers at Goh; then we had guest French and Cuban teacher, so I’m a mish-mash. I didn’t have any American training.
“But now I have to say I appreciate American dance more than I ever have, and I’ve learned how to dance quicker.”
Her teachers at Goh Ballet, Chen Jian Nien and MayFong, have a reputation for supplying the company with talent having also trained principal dancer Yuan Yuan Tan, and from Shanghai, Mingxuan Wang, currently dancing in the corps at SFB.
Other influences in her dancing, she says have come through the work. “In SFB, I work a lot with Felipe [Diaz]; he’s definitely a huge influence, and one of my first partners Gennedi [Nedvigin]. He was a principal when I was in the corps, and since then we danced a lot together. He taught me a lot about partnering, and he has such a pure Russian technique he coached me a bit on the side.”
Asked for her advice to younger dancers, Chung advocates having courage and going for it. “People who do excel faster are those who aren’t afraid. For me, when I first joined the ballet, I was really shy, so try not to be afraid of putting yourself out there even if you feel wrong or ugly. It’s better to go for whatever it is and fall flat on your face than to not try at all.
“I would have liked to hear more as I was starting out.”
The bright-eyed Chung looks as though she is ready to do it all over again. “At the same time, have a balanced life. It’s hard to find that balance—savour it all! But having a normal life is important too.”
Chung is currently dancing the title role in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Cinderella” in SFB’s final programme of the season. A couple of wishes for a fairy godmother to grant: “I would love to work with Crystal Pite—Canadians,” wistful, eyes sparkling, “and Ohad Naharin. It might be rough on my body, but that stuff is inspiring.”
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