By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
When Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) first came to his school when he was in the third grade, Zeheng Huang didn’t know what kind of dancing they did.
“He was thinking that it was hip hop dance,” said his mother, Xiaolan Chen. “I didn’t even know what ballet was,” said Zeheng. Now, he has danced in PNB’s “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” four times, and in this year’s holiday run, from Nov. 25 to Dec. 27, he plays, a second time, the highly visible role of the prince.
PNB visited Zeheng’s school as part of Dance Chance, their program to improve equity in dance by recruiting Seattle Public Schools’ students.
“They came to our school to pick a few students that were flexible and had good talent for ballet and I was one of those two students,” Zeheng recalled. “The splits are pretty easy for me…I have my mom’s genes.”
Since coming to the United States from southern China in 2002, proud mom, Xiaolan, has stayed at home to take care of her three children, but it was not always so. From a young age, she loved dancing.
“I liked almost all the dances. I just wanted to dance and dance.” While in China, she played violin, and graduated from art school as an interior designer. She, too, was selected to attend a dance school, but as she was already in college, and felt at a disadvantage not having trained since childhood, Xiaolan passed on this offer. Now, she helps her son and the other PNB school dancers prepare backstage, including costume and makeup.
While his mom was familiar with “The Nutcracker” due to her interests growing up, Zeheng had no idea what it was until Dance Chance provided him with two tickets to attend a show.
“I never thought I would be in it, but I watched it and I really liked it,” he said. 13-year-old Zeheng, who was born in the United States, currently attends Denny International Middle School and has reached Level VI at the PNB school. His enthusiasm for ballet has grown, exponentially over the years.
“I started enjoying ballet a lot. I love all the movements and the music (especially the live music).”
PNB’s “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” is a winter holiday staple. The story follows Clara, who receives a nutcracker as a present at a Christmas party. Clara later falls asleep and dreams that the nutcracker has come to life and that she visits a winter wonderland where snowflakes and sugar plums dance to the music of Tchaikovsky. In the first year he participated, in 2018, Zeheng, who was 9 at the time, played a boy at the Christmas party. In 2019, he was again a party attendee and also a mouse—one of the minions of the mouse king, who comes alive in Clara’s dream as a sort of personification of her bothersome brother; and against whom the nutcracker (who is also the prince) defends Clara.
Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, there was no “Nutcracker” in 2020, but last year, in 2021, Zeheng had his debut as the prince, an important role that has one of the four solos in the show. “I’m kind of like three roles in one,” Zeheng enthusiastically explained to the Weekly. “There are three main scenes—the party scene, the battle scene, and Act Two.” In the party scene this year, Zeheng plays the nephew and he’s “just kind of in there, not doing much,” but in the battle scene, he steals the show as the nutcracker who saves Clara.
“I love the battle scene where I get the sword and the head,” Zeheng said, adding that the sword is pretty heavy. When he leads his soldiers into battle, he gets to “jump on the mouse king” and win the battle.
“In Act Two, I’m the prince with my Clara, which is the little princess. I do my solo which is the pantomime…That’s my big part, then I just watch.” Zeheng enjoys the performances of the other dancers. In general, he shared that “my favorite thing is probably the community backstage because everyone is really nice and supportive.” The Weekly spoke to Zeheng and his mom the morning after their dress rehearsal for this year’s show. “I enjoyed all night,” said Xiaolan. “I was so happy that after we got home…I could not sleep, just thinking about every moment.”
“The Nutcracker” is a Christmas tradition in the West, yet many people do not become familiar with it, apart from music heard while Christmas shopping, unless, like Xiaolan and Zeheng, they have some interest in dance. The Weekly asked dancers of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage at PNB to reflect on their experience with “The Nutcracker.”
Soloist Leah Terada said, “The first production of ‘The Nutcracker’ I saw was ‘George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker’ in 2010, performed by the New York City Ballet…I remember the sets in the second act looking like doilies adorning the stage, making the dancers the confections of the land. Even from backstage, the whole production felt energetic, opulent, and traditional.”
Corps de ballet dancer Kuu Sakuragi told the Weekly, “I grew up dancing Kent Stowell’s ‘Nutcracker’ as a level III student at PNB School. I loved his version of ‘The Nutcracker’…because I got to dance as a toy theater kid. Dancing that role made me realize how much fun it is to perform for an audience.”
“When I was 8 years old, ‘The Nutcracker’ was my first time performing ballet on stage,” Melisa Guilliams, corps de ballet dancer, recalled. “I always loved musicality and movement, but I learned to love sharing it with people, too.”
PNB soloist Christian Poppe said, “‘The Nutcracker’ was ever present throughout my childhood, and I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to perform many different parts as I grew up. I have many fond memories of learning various tricks and jumps.” Similarly to Zeheng, many of Poppe’s first solo opportunities were during “The Nutcracker.”
Xiaolan expressed that she loves “almost all of the show, the dancing, and the costumes.” The Weekly asked Zeheng if he ever gets nervous on stage. “Sometimes I do, but after last year, I’ve gotten pretty used to it.”
Visit pnb.org/nutcracker for more information on how to watch Zeheng and the other PNB dancers in “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.”
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.