The Two Nans: Featuring the National Ballet of Canada

Written by Deirdre Kelly
Translated by Jennifer J. Lau

Photography by IKONICA

Betty Lai.jpg
Canadian Fashion Designers:  Stephan Caras ,  Betty Lai ,  Christopher Paunil ,  Christopher Bates ,  House of Dalla , and  the Gallantry .  Milliners:  David Dunkley  and  Lilliput Hats   Photography by T.H. Jackson Huang,  IKONICA , Photography Assistant: Yumiko Miyamto.  Art Direction:  Deborah Lau-Yu ; Editorial Assistants: Carrie Yan and Bonnie Chan  Location:  Art Gallery of Ontario  (AGO)  Make-Up by  Fiona Man ; Hair by  Ladylyn Gool

Canadian Fashion Designers: Stephan Caras, Betty Lai, Christopher Paunil, Christopher Bates, House of Dalla, and the Gallantry.

Milliners: David Dunkley and Lilliput Hats

Photography by T.H. Jackson Huang, IKONICA, Photography Assistant: Yumiko Miyamto.

Art Direction: Deborah Lau-Yu; Editorial Assistants: Carrie Yan and Bonnie Chan

Location: Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO)

Make-Up by Fiona Man; Hair by Ladylyn Gool

What are the chances? Two ballet dancers, both from the Chinese seaport city of Dalian, both invited to join the National Ballet of Canada immediately upon completion of their rigorous training, and both named Nan. 

Xiao Nan Yu, known to her friends as just Nan, is a principal dancer with more than 20 years of experience as an award-winning ballerina at Canada’s largest classical dance company. An enigmatic and exquisitely graceful dancer standing a willowy 5’7”, she has danced major roles in all the big ballets – Swan Lake, Giselle, The Nutcracker, La Bayadère and more. Her expansive repertoire also includes modern works like Romeo and Juliet, Song of the Earth, and The Firebird. Her personal favourite is Onegin, the ballet which sparked her meteoric rise through the ranks when she danced the lovelorn female lead, Tatiana, opposite the ardent Rex Harrington, when just a 22-year old second soloist in 2000. Then artistic director James Kudelka promoted her to the position of principal dancer, the company’s highest status, a year later.


于曉楠是加拿大最大的經典舞蹈團的主要演員。已經累計二十多年經驗的她,是一名獲得無數獎項的優秀芭蕾舞員。這名身高170公寸的優雅女舞員,在許多的戲中飾演過主角,作品包括:《天鵝湖》,《吉賽爾》,《胡桃夾子》,《巴代爾》等。她也飾演過現代作品,包括《羅密歐與朱麗葉》,《地球之歌》,《火鳥》,以及她個人最喜愛的《奧尼金》。她在《奧尼金》的角色是Tatiana。對手是有名的加拿大希臘裔雷克斯·哈靈頓(Rex Harrington)。要當第二獨奏者的她,當時僅22歲。後來因為這個角色而獲得大眾的讚賞。於2001年,于曉楠在藝術總監詹姆斯·庫德爾卡(James Kudelka) 領導之下晉升為公司最高榮譽的一級獨舞員。

Xiao Nan danced Oneginagain last season, to commemorate her two decades at the top of the pyramid, again to great critical acclaim. This season, she travels with the company to Paris, dancing the lead female role in Nijinsky, choreographer John Neumeier’s evocative full-length exploring twin themes of madness and genius. “I love every part of that ballet,” she says. “I can’t ask for more, the story, the interaction with the people, the design. I love it.” If that weren’t enough, Xiao Nan is also a loving wife, happily married for 17 years to her husband Shuang Zheng, and mother to two daughters aged 5 and 12. How she finds the time to be one of the most luminous ballerinas ever to grace the Toronto stage is quite a mystery. Really, she takes your breath away. 

“When I dance I don’t think of the next step,” says Xiao Nan in a recent conversation, sharing one of her secrets for success. “But that comes from experience. When you train long enough the muscle does what it needs to do without you having to think about it. It becomes second nature.” Which is why she can focus without distraction on the artistry behind the technique, why she can’t help but shine.

上季,為了慶賀她作為主要演員二十週年,于曉楠再次出演《奧尼金》。今年,她會飾演於巴黎上演的《尼金斯基》中的女主角。經過約翰·內梅埃爾(John Neumeier) 的編舞,《尼金斯基》會探索瘋狂和天才之間的聯繫。她說:“我愛芭蕾舞的每個部分。無論是它的故事,演員之間的互動,或設計,我都非常滿意。”于曉楠不但是一名優秀的芭蕾舞員,她還也是一位好媽媽和妻子。與丈夫有兩位寶貝女兒;長女今年12歲,次女今年5歲。她是如何分配家庭和工作的時間呢?我們不得不佩服她可以照顧家庭的同時,也擁有令人讚嘆的美麗舞步。


Xiao Nan Yu in motion.jpg

Nan Wang calls Xiao Nan's gift for dance a revelation, because he looks up to his fellow Chinese dancer. Nan Wang is her junior in age and rank as a member of the corps de ballet, the ground floor of every classical dance organization. Nan Wang entered the corps in 2005, soon after moving to Toronto from Vancouver where he had been studying for two years at the esteemed Goh Ballet Academy in Vancouver after graduating from the Xu Yan Dance School in the historic Chinese city of Shen Yang in 2001. Artistic director Karen Kain asked him to come to Toronto after watching him in a master class she had taught at the Goh Academy, clearly impressed by his abilities. He has been in the corps ever since, dancing mostly in ensemble pieces behind stars like Xiao Nan, but soon that will change.

Last season, visiting choreographer John Neumeier, the American-born artistic director of the Hamburg Ballet, plucked Nan Wang from the anonymity of the rank and casted him prominently in his dance version of the Tennessee Williams’ play, A Streetcar Named Desire, which the National Ballet presented in Toronto in June. Nan danced the role quixotically titled Allan’s Friend, a small yet dramatically important part. Nan Wang made it loom large, imbuing the role with palpable emotion and a liquid dancing style which pulled all eyes his way when he was on the stage. He was a sensation. So why did it take him so long to get noticed?

“I’ve always been a late bloomer,” observes Nan Wang with a chuckle. “For years I was always this young boy who was very active, who could jump and move fast. I never put a lot of thought into artistry before but that has always been the hope.” 

Xiao Nan helped him see what he was missing. Her ability to dance from inside her imagination and turn a line of movement into a visual poem has directly inspired Nan Wang, making him want to scale new heights of his own. “It’s definitely the emotion behind the dancing that interests me,” says Nan Wang. 

“I watched her Oneginand thought, wow, ballet can be emotional. It’s not just about technique.” His training in China, he explains, tended to downplay the nuance in ballet, emphasizing discipline over artistry. He had been spotted by scouts from the dance academy in Shenyang when he was 11 years old. They sent him away from home to study for six years at the ballet school. “It was pure military-style, 24/7,” recalls Nan Wang. “There was not much emphasis on artistry. It was more about learning and finishing things quickly, and doing it better than others. Ballet was more like a competitive sport. You didn’t question the mentality.”

另一位舞員名王楠。于曉楠的舞蹈天份對他是一種啓示。他非常欣賞這位長輩。王楠比于曉楠年輕一點,而王楠在舞團裡也是于曉楠的後輩。2001年他從沈陽曆史悠久的沉陽舞蹈學校畢業後,到了溫哥華尊敬的Goh 芭蕾舞學院深造了兩年。藝術總監卡倫·凱恩(Karen Kain) 在課堂上對他印象很深刻,就邀請他到多倫多去。王楠於2005年從溫哥華搬到多倫多,而加入舞蹈組織。到現在也是在舞團裡演出。台上的他跟其他演員都在一級獨舞員身後表演。但這個場面可能很快就會改變。

美國出生的漢堡芭蕾舞藝術總監約翰·內梅埃(John Neumeier) 是王楠的伯樂。上季,他給了王楠一個很引人注目的角色。他為國家芭蕾舞團編舞的田納西·威廉斯(Tennessee Williams) 的《慾望街車》於六月份在多倫多上演。王楠飾演理想主義的“艾倫的朋友”。雖然這是一個小的角色,可是他是不可缺乏的。王楠用了豐富的感情和流動的舞蹈給予“艾倫的朋友”新生命。觀眾也都看著他的一舉一動。王楠就這樣一夜成名了。但是他的伯樂為什麼那麼晚才出現呢?王楠笑著說:“我一直都很遲熟。從少,我都是一個非常活躍的男孩,喜歡跳來跳去,也跑得挺快的。但是我沒有認真想過這些可以發揮為藝術。可是,我一直有這個抱負。”



Ballet is a daily ritual. Dancers attend class each morning to go through the same series of barre and floor exercises that have been in place in ballet academies since the time of Louis XIV. It’s where dancers both train for their profession and maintain their hold on the art form, learning how to work through the pain that is an inevitable part of ballet. Xiao Nan first learned how to master her body in China where, like Nan Wang, she studied hard and relentlessly, 

“six hours day every day, until I graduated from school.” Her school was also in Shenyang, about an hour’s flight from the home she shared with her government staff parents in the northeast tip of the country. A shy but obviously gifted girl, she recounted how she cried her way through her first year as a young boarder, begging her mother to set her free from ballet but her parents and her teachers could tell that young Xiao Nan was destined for greatness and so her request was refused, for the good of her art. 

After six years in Shenyang, she moved on to the Beijing Dance Institute for two more years of study, and in her final year, she represented China at the prestigious Prix de Lausanne competition for young dancers in Switzerland. National Ballet School of Canada artistic director Mavis Staines was one of the adjudicators and offered Xiao Nan, then 17, a scholarship to study in Toronto. She took the leap, and has not looked back. “Toronto is a very multicultural city and the audience of Toronto likes to see a multicultural stage. We always have a mixed cast. It’s never really a question of it being an advantage or a disadvantage if you come from somewhere else. There’s a lot of diversity.”

芭蕾舞是每天都要練習的。每一天早上上課時都要反覆地練習一系列的步驟,而這些是從路易十四(Louis XIV; 1638–1715) 的時代已經出現的傳統。這是舞者必需經歷的訓練過程,讓他們掌握技術技巧和面對不能避免的疼痛。那麼嚴格的訓練在芭蕾舞的世界裡也很普遍。于曉楠在中國訓練的時候也是每天六個小時不停地練習的。她所讀的學院跟王楠的學院也在瀋陽。于曉楠八歲就離開她在東北部的家。比較內向的她,一直都被視為有天賦的小女孩。但是,她還記得她寄宿的第一年是哭著過的。當時的她多希望媽媽可以帶她回家,那麼她就不用再跳芭蕾舞了。可是父母跟老師們都覺得于曉楠未來一定會成名,所以就決定讓年輕的她自己留在瀋陽苦練。

六年後,于曉楠到了北京舞蹈學院再深造兩年。在最後一年,她代表中國參加了在瑞士舉辦的洛桑國際芭蕾舞比賽(Prix de Lausanne)。加拿大國家芭蕾舞學院藝術總監馬韋斯·斯達尼斯(Mavis Staines)是比賽裁判員之一。看完她的表演,斯達尼斯就邀請17歲的于曉楠到加拿大。他並答應提供給她獎學金去多倫多讀書。于曉楠決定迎接新的挑戰,就搬到多城。她述說:“多倫多是一個非常多元文化的城市。多倫多的觀眾也喜歡看到一個多元文化的舞台,所以我們團隊都有多種族裔的舞員。在加國,作為有族裔的演員絕對不會成為一個優勢或變成一種劣勢。這裏的種族是多樣性的。”

Nan Wang concurs; the complexion of ballet in Canada has changed along with that of the country’s increasingly multiracial population. 

“That’s the best thing about Canada,” enthuses Nan Wang. “I have never felt excluded. I have always been accepted by Karen. She is the one who brought me here. You don’t see many Chinese in the European ballet companies. But in Canada it just feels right.”

Nan Wang is planning on staying, and in July, he proposed to his fiancée of six years. Their Chinese nuptials will take place after next season which doubtless will see him climbing ever more steadily to the top. Ballets he will perform this coming year include Nijinsky (the two Nans again reunited), and Crystal Pite’s frenetically abstract work, Emergence, one of Nan Wang’s own favourites. “I love the energy,” he says. As do we.


王楠打算定居於加拿大。七月份,他向交往六年的女朋友求婚。他們的中式婚禮將會在下季後進行。也就是說,王楠將會有更多再創高峰的表演機會。下一年,他將在《尼金斯》跟于曉楠一起合作。他也會在克斯達雅·琵特(Crystal Pite) 的抽像作品《浮現》出現,而這套戲是他最愛的作品之一。他說:“我喜歡戲裡的活力和能量。”我們非常期待著他的悉心演繹。