The danger of losing the traditions of ballet to the pace of the contemporary

Patricia Zhou worked at dance companies across Europe or the States with her primary focus laying on Russian style ballet rather than the English techniques

Ballet. An artform, tool to expression. Quoting producer Nigel Lythgoe, «only three percent of the kids that commence dancing become professional dancers» due to the industry’s hierarchy and precision. «Being young, you do not realize what that all entails. When you get older, you start to understand that things will not allow you to live a normal life», says dancer Patricia Zhou. Canada born dancer and filmmaker, Zhou entered the branch. Her intention centered around the fun factor rather than a ballet dance career. It was a teacher from the studio she danced at, near the family’s house, who recognized her potential and introduced her at competitions. Zhou’s Asian background represented a hurdle, with her parents wanting her to commence an academic career. «They were reluctant. When I applied for a ballet school, my mum said that they would not want me to dance, and the teachers responded: ‘If you did not let her dance, that would be a sin’. Until then, I hadn’t recognized by potential». During a trip to Beijing, Zhou’s mum, intending to showcase the toughness of the business, arranged a training session at the Beijing Dance Academy. «She believed this would prevent me from continuing in this field. After three lessons, the teachers called my parents, wanting me to stay».

The four following years which Zhou spent at the Kirov Academy in Washington D.C. sculpted her character and dancing method. Commencing at the age of fourteen, she belonged to the older beginners yet danced her way up to the highest-level class within one and a half years. «I started to realize that the teachers who were standing next to me each lesson, yelling, paid attention, and liked me. For a 14-year-old, this meant stress» she recalls. Juxtaposing the Russian techniques to the English approach, Zhou recognizes an understanding and emotion that Russian teachers and dancers express towards music and choreographies. «The Russian soul and appreciation are different from any other ballet styles I have encountered. While others come at it from a sports approach, judging the techniques and athleticism, the Russian training is blended with an understanding of the movements and music». She kept this perspective on the dance form, intending to perceive the roles and sense behind the pieces rather than just executing them. «They created this world for me, even if there was no scenery: you were not just dancing but portraying a character»

The thrive for perfection fused by humanity, the effects of the training sessions and choreography standards, marble her actions today. «Ballet has influenced me in everything I do – We are used to perfection. Sometimes I am hesitant to start new things because I consider I would not be perfect, though it might just need some time». At the end of her Academy period, Zhou got offered an apprenticeship at the Royal Ballet in London. Observing her idols train at the barre, she grabbed for the higher, seeking to grow and improve. The English way of teaching further filed her movements and executions. Trailed by the following years at Staatsballett Berlin, where she got trained by Director and Ukrainian ballet dancer Vladimir Malakhov, Zhou returned to the Eastern European influences. Malakhov’s encouragement and coaching resulted in her success and self-belief. At a competition with 300 participants, she was one of two who got offered a job. 

The offer from the L.A. Dance Project, a contemporary company with a short trail of existence, convinced her to leave the common ground to start something new. «It is a non-traditional company. We would be performing in museums or someone’s backyard. Observing the way people connect to dance when they see the subject from closer was interesting». The time at the company brought Patricia Zhou to the medium of film and made her understand the camera as a second person a dancer could interact with. «It opened my eyes to the other techniques there are. I loved ballet as a technique, but I am not intrigued to watch it: it’s traditional and rooted that it is a challenge to figure out how to modernize without losing what it is». Inspired by her experiences at the L.A. Dance Project, Zhou decided to transmit her personal story through the vehicle of film. Little Treasure explores grief and acceptance through the alchemy of movement. When her grandfather TieMing Peng passed away in 2018, Zhou had written a poem, talking about the two worlds of existence: 

What is it we need in life to be happy? 
To be loved perhaps, or to be able to love? 
With such abandon, without fear of loss, of regret. 
For us imagine it is not what is tangible. 
Not what that sparkles in our palm dingles in our pockets.
That we think of, as we pass from this world to another. 
Is there another world out there?
I would like to hope that there is.
And when I picture you, I see you smiling down upon me.
Further is too scary to think that you are really gone.
Wherever you may lay – Wherever you may find yourself
I’ll send you memories of us.
And if you ever need of me, just look for a glowing light.
For thoughts of how wonderful you are, radiate like an aura above.
Until maybe one day, they may mistake me for an angel.
And take me up to the sky,
Where we’ll surely be reunited
My grandfather and I.

«When I conceptualized the piece, I already had the poem from when my grandfather passed. Choreography fell into place naturally». The alliance between the power of words and her movements’ language served as the piece’s core. «When I thought about creating the film, I wanted poem and dance to stand out and not drown it in the visual elements. My sister helped me with the art direction and costume». Over two filming days, Zhou and her sister worked on the final cuts for Little Treasure. The breakage of the film roll resulted in a loss of half of the shots, recaptured the next day. «The one film looked all warm and yellow, while the other one had a black and white look. We ended up liking these two atmospheres as they can relate to the two worlds of the poem». The choreography was guided by the dance framework and music flow of The Dying Swan. «I was considering swan arms and how they could be perceived as angel wings. People who would watch this may presume that is what I was trying to convey. I like to prove them wrong». The idea of five movement repetitions in the beginning and at the end of the video came to mind through a dance class she had visited, where the focus laid on five dance figures. «I translated this idea into mine. One of these movements is the arms, representing my grandfather, which almost looks like you hug something. I wanted to give each figure a meaning rather than just following a choreography». The monochromatic location, an industrial warehouse conversion, served as the background for the story. 

What intrigued Zhou’s interest in film and making processes is uniting her roles as dancer, creator, and producer, «keeping it all under my vision». For upcoming short film projects, Zhou plans on working with narratives to combine the visions with a perspective. «Dance, fashion and art are at the forefront, but ballet gets lost. I want to bring ballet to the intercultural and Zeitgeist». Zhou sees inspiration in people’s pleasure to dance, not solely the way of execution. «Every dancer has a thing that would draw my attention. Seeing with how much ‘élan’ they look at dancing gives me joy». As an Asian American, she experienced the feeling of alienation when being at either place and decided to dedicate her practices and achievements to young Asian girls. «I want to go beyond the screen and change the perception that young women cannot do anything. It is up to us to change the minds of the people. Coming from ballet does not help because you get told to be quiet and listen. I had to retrain myself, and this has changed me». Seeking to teach people her skill, Zhou started to offer online classes on her Instagram and a beginner class for her Youtube fellows during the lockdown. «It made me realize that I can be self-sufficient and that I do not have to depend on a freelance job. Women and young people must understand that they can achieve things».


Patricia Zhou
Studied at the Beijing Dance Academy, the Kirov Academy in Washington D.C., the Royal Ballet in London, and the Staatsballett Berlin.
She is currently working with Benjamin Millepied’s company L.A. Dance Project.

Lilly Meuser

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.