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The pandemic didn’t stop this dancer from creating her finest work

Professional ballet dancer Zhong-Jing Fang on her inspiration for her new ballet, how she takes care of herself physically and mentally, and the wisdom she hopes to impart on her newborn daughter.

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Fangqi Li and Andrii Ishchuk in Zhong-Jing Fang's <i>The Unforeseen</i>. Photo: Pierce Jackson.
Fangqi Li and Andrii Ishchuk in Zhong-Jing Fang's The Unforeseen. Photo: Pierce Jackson.

American Ballet Theatre was founded in 1940 as “the greatest collaboration in ballet history.” The dancers, musicians, and designers of American Ballet Theatre (ABT) all came together to produce magnificent productions – the best of ballet to be seen stateside.

Over 80 years later, ABT is guided by the same ethos: to continue to present excellent ballet and great collaborations. In this spirit, the Company launched ABT Incubator, a focused choreographic workshop to inspire new voices and generate ideas for new work. The program provides participants with the resources to explore and experiment as chorographers with dancers from the Company.

Six ABT dancers were chosen to take on the role of choreographer last year. They came ready to test out new ideas and push the limits of ballet. They received guidance from ABT Incubator Artistic Director (and fellow dancer)Jose Sebastian, as well as mentorship sessions with the prolific choreographer Jessica Lang.

Then COVID-19 hit, forcing the choreographers to become ever more inventive. The choreographers had to adapt to creating their new work over Zoom and in isolated “ballet bubbles.” Each final work was filmed for a digital presentation.

One of the six ABT Incubator choreographers is Zhong-Jing Fang (ZJ). Born in Shanghai, China, ZJ received her early training at the Shanghai Ballet School before joining ABT Studio Company in 2002. ZJ rose through the ranks at ABT to become a Soloist in 2018. This is ZJ’s third time creating for ABT Incubator.

We caught up with ZJ to learn more about her inspiration for her new ballet, how she takes care of herself physically and mentally, and the wisdom she hopes to impart on her newborn daughter.

Your piece is called The Unforeseen. Could you tell us what the title means and what it was like directing your peers? The Unforeseen reflects the time we are living in, right now. To me, it’s like a dream, a dream that’s beyond its own imagination. This piece is about relationships, where two people choose to stay together through the unforeseen circumstances as fate reveals their opposing emotions, struggles, and hopes. The strength of their commitment to each other prevails over the fragility of life. I was very fortunate to be able to work with dancers Fangqi Li & Andrii Ishchuk. They happened to live in the same household, so I could create this piece as a pas de deux (dance for two) in adherence to COVID-19 safety restrictions. The inspiration also came from the dancers themselves, through reflecting on how they dealt with their daily emotions, struggles, and hopes throughout this pandemic.  

 You are a new mother – how do you center yourself with all these new demands? Due to the pandemic, my husband and I decided to have a child, and thankfully our healthy baby girl was born on January 7 of this year! There have been so many demands since then, such as working from home, exercising to build my endurance for future ballet performances, choreographing virtually, nursing, my newly acquired and ever-evolving sleep schedule, and this list goes on!  It all can be very overwhelming. However, I continue to center myself by taking it one day at a time. As dancers, we like to be disciplined, even when we don’t have performances. The discipline has helped me to not only look ahead, but to also take baby steps forward each day.  This is helping me feel centered and has provided me with peace of mind, one day at a time. 

How do you connect with yourself? Do you have time for self-care and if so, what do you do? Nap, meditate, exercise? To me as a dancer, physical exercise really helps me to connect with myself. Each day I make time to stretch, work out, take a ballet class, or even take a simple walk with the family.  When I get tired, I allow myself to take a nap usually when my daughter is also sleeping. Even a five-minute power nap can refresh the mind.  

What are your outlets for creativity over the past year now that so much of ABT’s activity has slowed down? It has been difficult over the past year not being able to be creative in the studio or perform with my colleagues around the world.  At the same time, I’m grateful that ABT has worked so hard to provide different opportunities, such as the ABT Incubator workshop. This project is always about encouraging young dancers to be choreographers and to think outside of the box in a safe space.  And with everything being virtual, we had the chance to collaborate with a film director, which makes this year’s new ballets even more special. 

So much is going on in the world right now. What is one of the most important life lessons that you have learned and want to pass on to your child? During this past year, we were impacted by two major movements against injustice. It makes me think about my child, who is half-Chinese and half-African American.  I often ask myself, what’s our responsibility as parents and how can we keep our baby protected?  At the same time, as a ballerina, how can I bring her into the world of ballet?  Since the world is changing, what’s my responsibility as a ballet dancer, a choreographer, and most importantly as a mother as I continue to pursue this art form?

The Unforeseen, ZJ’s third work for ABT Incubator, premieres on Monday, March 29. It kicks off the series of new digital ballets premiering each Monday at noon ET for the next six weeks – and available to stream for free! – on ABT’s YouTube channel.

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