Dancer explores new roles Zhirui Zou hopes to learn from artists in Annapolis

November 12, 1998|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

The latest addition to the Ballet Theatre of Annapolis is an interesting character who speaks mainly Mandarin but communicates with other dancers in French and whose name -- Regina -- she chose from an English dictionary back home in China.

Zhirui "Regina" Zou, a 22-year-old native of Shanghai, is one of China's best dancers. The Chinese government groomed her from age 10 to dazzle in ballet, and she delivered when she won national awards, earned top student honors at the prestigious Beijing Academy of Dance and last year was named one of three principal dancers at the Central Opera Ballet, the country's premier dance company and one of the world's six largest dance companies.

Her ticket to Maryland's only professional ballet troupe came when she mailed the company a videotaped performance in March.

The tape was incompatible with U.S. videocassette recorders. After some searching, Edward Stewart, BTA's artistic director, located equipment to play the tape, though it would show it only in black and white. Even so, the delicate-looking dancer performing as the Black Swan in "Swan Lake" captivated him.

"She has a special quality," Stewart said. "She's a very dynamic character. She has very long arms, which make a very, very nice line on stage."

He lobbied for her to come to Annapolis as a guest artist in residence, and the company extended the invitation within a month. She is the first dancer from China to visit the BTA and one of three foreign nationals with the company now. The other two are Russian men.

A difficult path

Zou arrived in early September and will dance with the company through the season, which ends in May. She began her sojourn here with the role of Dracula's jealous wife in BTA's version of Bram Stoker's classic, staged recently in Annapolis and Towson.

Zou's path to Annapolis has been a winding one. Her father was an electrical engineer and her mother handled public relations for a government-run auto shop.

She said music and dance class were always her favorites in elementary school, and when she was 10 and already long-legged, her dance teacher suggested she try out for the Shanghai Dance High School. Only 10 of the thousands of children who applied to the elite boarding school were accepted, she said.

"I felt very fortunate," she said. "But at the time I didn't know it would be so hard, so tiring."

Though she learned ballet, jazz and traditional Chinese dance, Zou was lonely for her parents.

"They were only allowed to visit once a week," Zou said. "Everybody thought about home a lot. At night after practice, we sat in front of the [practice] mirror and cried."

Because of China's policy of one child per family, Zou's parents were left childless when she departed for dance training. They felt the loss even more when she was accepted into the Beijing Academy of Dance, about 600 miles north of Shanghai. But she said they always encouraged her to pursue her dance career, even if it took her halfway around the world to Annapolis.

"My father really misses me," she said. "He feels it in his heart, but he won't say it. My mom hopes I can always be by her side, but for the sake of my career, they let me go."

Learning is important

Zou said she decided to leave China because she grew bored at the Central Opera Ballet. The idea of moving to the United States took root in 1994, when she represented China in the International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Miss.

She said she and her partner measured up to international dancers in the ballet category but didn't win because they lacked flair and skill in the modern dance sections. She blamed that on teachers in China who, she said, were less experienced in those styles.

"I was so dissatisfied," Zou said. "I wanted to be the best. At that time, I knew that one day I wanted to come back and learn modern dance."

No new roles

Her frustration increased when she realized last year that she had climbed to the top of the dance ladder in China at age 21. She had nowhere to go. She'd danced the lead roles in "Swan Lake," "Giselle" and "Red Detachment of Women," a Chinese ballet, among others, and the company had no money for the props and costumes needed to stage new ballets.

"I felt that if I was that young and I started not to learn new things, that's such a waste," Zou said. "This is the age when you're supposed to be learning lots of new things."

Stewart said he hopes BTA dancers will learn from Zou, too. He said she's been easy to work with despite the language barrier.

Ballet "terminology is in French," Stewart said. "And you demonstrate something, and then they follow, so it's not really hard to communicate."

Zou has enrolled in an English class and is also learning the language at home from her landlady, a native of Iceland. And she is learning as much as she can at the BTA through the varied ballets it stages.

Next stop, "Nutcracker."

Pub Date: 11/12/98

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