written by Mackenzie Wilson
Since she was a little girl living in China, Xuan Cheng, 33, has been familiar with call times. At 10 years old, she left home to attend the School of Guangzhou Ballet of China, where she and other aspiring ballerinas started their days with a rigorous hour-and-a-half workout at 5:30 a.m.
“We were like a little army,” Cheng said. She doesn’t sugar coat the school’s strictness—snacks weren’t allowed and neither were family visits. Cheng’s family lived five-and-a-half hours away by train and she saw them once or twice a year. The only relief from the isolation was a five-minute phone call once a week to loved ones. Now a principal dancer for the Oregon Ballet Theatre, Cheng can appreciate the level of discipline it took to push her and the other students to perfection. “It takes a lot of sacrifice, and you have to really love it like 300 percent because it doesn’t just come. … You have to really pay for it,” Cheng said.
“I mean pay for it by working on it, striving for it, not just physically but mentally.” Cheng spent five years at the school, which was a training ground for its own company of dancers. In 2000, she became a company dancer with the Guangzhou Ballet company. Competition took her to New York in 2005, where she felt a freedom she didn’t know. “The experience changed me. … I wanted more than just to be a baby ballerina in the company, I wanted more for my life, I wanted to travel, to see the world and dance internationally,” Cheng said.
Shortly after, she danced with two companies in Montreal, Quebec. “Once you are on stage dancing, it’s like a drug. It’s addictive, you want more.” In 2011, Cheng auditioned in Portland for the Oregon Ballet Theatre with her husband, who is also a professional dancer. “It’s just a very nice city to live in, and as Chinese, English is our second language, but you feel very welcome. You don’t feel you’re different than anyone else,” Cheng said. Besides being a principal dancer, Cheng also teaches ballet. She’s not moving into her final act yet, but decades of dancing have taken a toll on her body.
“It’s hard for a dancer when you’re past 30 because your body feels different than when you’re 20, but then your mind understands more,” Cheng said. “That’s why it’s so hard when suddenly you figure something out, but your body might not allow you to do it.” She combats the changes by devoting extra time to stretching, as well as swimming and practicing Pilates. “When you’re young it’s like, ‘I want to be the best in the class, then I want to be the best in the company,’” she said. “And at this age right now, I just want to be the best version of myself.”
Born: Hunan Province, China
WORKOUT Ballet, swimming and Pilates.
NUTRITION “I am very lucky I can eat whatever I want and don’t have a weight problem as a dancer. I like Chinese food. I eat a lot of vegetables and fruits. When we are in a busy performance week, my body needs steak and burgers. I don’t eat a lot of dairy.” “I like Chinese hot pot and Chinese northern-style barbecue. We can’t really find authentic ones here in Portland, so I cook at home when I have time. In fact, my husband cooks very well. I also like to hang out with my friends and grab cocktails for happy hour.”
INSPIRATION “I get inspired from everything. I get inspired by the little flower on the street when I take a walk by the river. I get inspired by my students—they remind me why I dance and make me a better teacher and dancer. I get inspired by my talented friends and colleagues in the studio every day. I get inspired by a delicious yummy chocolate cake.”
EVENTS The Oregon Ballet Theatre will perform The Nutcracker December 8-26. www.obt.org/18-19-season/nutcracker