Crossroads: Meet Dancer WanTing Zhao
“Dancing in the Company was my dream”
WanTing Zhao joined the Company in 2011 and made a splash as the Mermaid in Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid last spring—right before she was promoted to principal dancer.
What is your favorite role you’ve danced at SF Ballet and how did you prepare for it?
The Mermaid in John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid was my first principal role in a full-length ballet, so it will always have a special place in my heart. Like any ballet, the first part of preparing the role is learning the steps. After that, the artistic staff at SF Ballet helped me make the role my own. I learned from watching rehearsals and videos of other dancers, but at the end of the day, I didn’t want to copy someone else’s interpretation. The more I was able to rehearse, the more confident I became in how I wanted to convey the Mermaid’s story.
In fact, my favorite moment at SF Ballet was when I was promoted to principal dancer, right after a performance of The Little Mermaid. It was such a surprise and something I’ve dreamed of since I was a little girl.
How do you approach the drama of a role? Do you consider yourself an actor, too?
John [Neumeier] was very specific—he explained the thought behind each of the Mermaid’s movements. I don’t know if I consider myself an actor, but I do believe that dance is inseparable from performance.
What prompted you to take your first ballet class?
My mom brought me to my first dance class in China. I was skeptical at first, but once class started, I fell in love with it right away.
Tell me about preparing your shoes. Do you have favorite techniques?
I think that if you have to butcher your shoes too much, then they aren’t the right fit for you. I tend to have three or four pairs of pointe shoes in rotation at a time. That way I can pick the perfect one for the performance.
What are you looking forward to in the 2020 season?
I always look forward to the new works in our repertory. There is a special collaboration that goes on between dancers and choreographers that not only pushes the boundaries of what I can do, but also of what is considered classical dance.
Who are your favorite choreographers, and why?
We are fortunate to work with so many fantastic choreographers like Liam Scarlett, Arthur Pita, and Yuri Possokhov. I particularly enjoy working with Wayne McGregor. Wayne always blurs the line between ballet and contemporary dance and I love to be part of pushing that envelope.
What are your favorite steps?
Développé à la seconde!
Can you share a funny memory from an SF Ballet rehearsal or performance?
When I was dancing French [Mirlitons] in Nutcracker, the ribbons from our wands got tangled together. Thankfully it was in the middle of the dance, right before we had to give our ribbons to Clara, who was able to untie them while we continued. As always, the show must go on.
How do you wind down after a show?
After a performance, I love a glass of red wine and a hot bath. They help my muscles and my brain relax.
Can you “feel” when an audience is engaged? What do you hope they get from watching you and your colleagues dance?
Dancing in front of an audience is so much like a conversation: their responses are based on your performance, and you perform to their response. I hope that the audiences feel our passion and that dance brings unique meaning to their own lives.
How do you think dance brings people together?
I love that SF Ballet includes dancers from so many countries who have been brought together by a shared passion. I think this is also true of our audiences—people from all walks of life can come to the theater and leave united by the power of the performance.
What was it like to train at SF Ballet School and then continue through the Company? Did you know you wanted to dance with SF Ballet while you were a student?
I had always heard of SF Ballet growing up in China, so dancing in the Company was my dream. I attended the Beijing Dance Academy, which uses the Vaganova syllabus from Russia. Coming to SF Ballet School challenged me, and the combination of the two has made me a much stronger and more versatile dancer. And I am still in awe of the amazing dancers here and am inspired by them every day.
Tell me about your strength/cardio training outside of class and rehearsal. What other workouts do you enjoy?
For me, the most effective cross training is Pilates. I’m flexible so I try to focus on control.
You’ve been involved in some fashion campaigns. How do you compare the art of fashion to the art of ballet?
I love fashion—it’s a unique way to showcase your personality, and I think that the two are influenced by each other; contemporary ballet costumes are often influenced by what is considered fashionable, and ballet trends, like tulle skirts, always seem to end up on the runway.
Are there any traditions from your childhood in Anshan that you continue to incorporate in your day-to-day life?
I’m from Northern China, where the food is very savory. I love anything salty and spicy. My absolute favorite is fried rice: chicken fried rice, spicy seafood fried rice—I love it. No matter where I go, I always find comfort in these flavors and I’ll never be able to go without them!
What’s your favorite neighborhood in SF?
Hayes Valley is my favorite! Not only is it close to the performing arts community, but there are also lots of cute boutiques and delicious restaurants. I love SFJAZZ’s programs, and for food I frequent Souvla and a Mano. Souvla’s salads are especially healthy and light, and great to eat before a performance, so you don’t feel bloated. My favorite post-show spot is Monsieur Benjamin.
What are your hobbies?
When we’re not working, I really enjoy traveling and discovering new places. I always love visiting Bali, London, Japan, and Hawaii. I also go to as many museums and concerts as I can. And I’m learning to cook! I’m trying to learn from my grandma. If there’s one dish I could learn from her, it’d be five spice pork belly. But that’s hard to do, so I’m starting with something easier: chicken noodle soup.
What is something about you that might surprise us?
Even though I can balance on my toes, I can’t ride a bike.
Header Image: WanTing Zhao // © Erik Tomasson