Ballerina Nguyễn Thu Huệ will perform as the white and black swans in Swan Lake on October 7. She will make one of ballet’s most iconic moments not only in her career but also for Vietnamese ballet to be the first Vietnamese dancer acting two main character in the ballet. The ballet is choreographed by Lê Ngọc Văn, from the English National Ballet on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Việt Nam National Opera and Ballet (VNOB). Việt Nam News reporter Nguyễn Thúy Bình talks with Huệ about her roles in Swan Lake.
You are the first Vietnamese dancer to perform the two swans in Swan Lake. How do you feel?
When I found out I would perform the leading roles in the ballet, I was very worried. I have performed as the white swan but never as the black swan. I know that the black swan is one of the most difficult roles to perform.
What difficulties did you encounter during rehearsals?
I perform as the two swans, which requires not only technique but also good health. I think this is an opportunity for all ballet dancers who haven’t had many chances to perform in a big ballet like Swan Lake. It is a big challenge for me. I joke that I need to have an ambulance waiting outside the theatre. I want to reach a milestone in my career, so I have something to be proud of later. I am supported by many people, including veteran dancer Bùi Ngọc Quang. He used to perform in dance troupes in Russia such as The Mariinsky Ballet and St Petersburg Ballet Theatre. He helps me to get acquainted with the movement of the black swan. Then choreographer Lê Ngọc Văn comes back to Việt Nam to join the project. He has to research movements to suit my body. The bodies of Vietnamese dancers differ from western dancers, so it is difficult for the choreographer to select movements. I thought a lot before the rehearsal and I watched many versions of the ballet. The more I watched, the more confused I got. The most difficult part is featuring two opposite characters in one body.
How do you perform the differences between the two roles?
The black swan takes me and the choreographer a lot of time. The white and the black are two sides of life. It represents good and evil within each and every person. I have performed good and gentle characters in ballets like Giselle and Nutcracker, but have never acted a role like the black swan. It is symbolic of emotion, creating conflict and difficulty in reaching perfection. It challenges me a lot. I’m the white swan for 20 minutes and then quickly change to be the black swan. The roles require a huge amount of physical stamina. It is really hard to get through because I’m breathing so hard and my muscles are burning. Beyond technique, I also want to bring to life the deep and complicated character. I want to use the steps to express something about the white swan. That is what elevates ballet from being athletic to being artistic.
What is more difficult, technique or expressing emotion?
I can’t choose. Ballet is special in that when a dancer feels tired, they still have to perform. I don’t think about the difficulty because it will discourage me. In Swan Lake, I have to do onstage what I have never done before. I have to make it look effortless. I hope the audience will see the two characters in the story not only on the stage.
You have three months to rehearse. What do you hope for?
Good health and no pain. After the first rehearsal with the choreographer, my ankle swelled up like an apple. This is the first time I danced in a four-act ballet. I have to work six days a week. I wish I had more time to rehearse.
Why did you choose to study ballet?
I like singing and dancing when I was young. And I was confident to perform on stage. One day, I learned that Việt Nam Dance Academy was recruiting in Thanh Hóa Province and I asked my parents to try. I was 12 years old. I was too young to live and study in Hà Nội, far from home. My parents did not want me to go. I told them that I would go on hunger-strike if they did not agree. It was funny because I didn’t even know what ballet was. I struggled to become a ballerina because of my long toes. I was discouraged many times but my teacher Nguyễn Quỳnh Lan inspired me with a love for ballet. I also got support from VNOB leaders and veteran dancers. After working at the theatre for just three months, I became a soloist in The Nutcracker.
I need to try different stages. As a ballerina, I need to learn much more because at school I just learn the background. I have to get performing experience from veteran dancers.