Five minutes with... Zai
17th Jan 2024 13:05
Second year student and Dame Margot Fonteyn medal-winner Zai tells us about life at ENBS.


You recently won the Dame Margot Fonteyn Audience Choice Award and a bronze medal at the Margot Fonteyn International Ballet Competition – tell us how that felt.

Participating in the Margot Fonteyn International Ballet Competition was such a special experience, providing a unique platform where dancers could mesh our years of world-class RAD syllabus training, artistry and love of dance, while working with world-renowned choreographers and professionals, culminating in a prestigious opportunity to perform on an international stage. 

Having the opportunity to  not only take part in, but also being awarded the Dame Margot Fonteyn Audience Choice Award and the Bronze Medal at such a prestigious event, was humbling, exhilarating and awe-inspiring. It provided not only a stepping stone to facilitating a career in dance, but an opportunity to dance and work with and alongside likeminded and talented dancers, teachers, renowned choreographers, perform at in international level, whilst embracing and embodying the journey of continued learning.

Tell us about some other dance or career highlights from your time at ENBS

During my time at ENBS there have been a number of highlights. Participating in the seasonal showcases provides the valuable foundations on which to combine our technical gains with performance skills in front of an audience. Performing at the Wallace Collections was surreal and rewarding knowing that we were dancing among masterpieces of painting, sculpture, furniture, armour, and porcelain, that is one of the finest and most celebrated collections in the world. Being invited to dance at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital was fulfilling and heartwarming, knowing that we had contributed to creating joy even for a brief moment. Additionally, speaking and dancing at the Boys’ Day of Dance was humbling knowing that I had been in their shoes with the dream to dance at ENBS and that with persistence, dedication and determination this can become a reality.

To date, the standout moment from my time at ENBS was dancing Andrew McNicol's piece in the 2023 Summer Show. Coming from a ballet school in Australia with only two boys in my class it was exhilarating and powerful dancing with a group of men filling the stage all sharing the same passion. The energy, commitment, focus and unification that the boys brought to that piece made the electric atmosphere super fun, invigorating and a memory I will always cherish. The bond and support the boys had for each other by the end was like nothing else.

Why did you choose ENBS?

ENBS piqued my interest because of its history and connection with the founder Peter Schaufuss and the English National Ballet Companys commitment to keeping the cornerstones of the classical repertoire vibrantly alive, commissioning and acquiring new work, refurbishing existing works and encouraging new choreographers to work with performers. The facilities afforded to students with sprung floors, the body conditioning and weight training studio, physiotherapy room, study room, library and student lounge, allow students to embrace their training fully. After researching the highly qualified teaching faculty led by the talented Artistic Director Miss Durante and their real-life work connection to the profession, this further supported my ENBS choice. However, what firmly cemented my desire to attend ENBS was partaking in the final entry audition at the school in London. I could genuinely feel the “family atmosphere”, the wholistic approach of not only me as the dancer, but also me as the person and discovering the way forward in identifying my strengths, developing and refining my weakness and honing my skills to transform me into an employable professional dancer, I knew this was the place for me.

What do you enjoy most about life at ENBS?

The attributes I enjoy most about ENBS is the approach and methodology the faculty employ to nurture, direct and channel you to be the best version of a dancer you can be. In each and every class, staff set about proactively seeking connection, knowing ‘you’ the person, refining and polishing techniques, ensuring feedback is personalised and specifically targeted towards achieving maximum gains. It is evident the school cultivates a supportive, nourishing environment built on trust, respect, open communication and kindness. On a personal note, the greatest reward is when the teaching staff push me beyond what even I thought I was capable of, which is a testament to their passion and commitment in delivering well-rounded dance education for the future.

What’s the hardest bit of training to be a professional dancer?

The world of dance and navigating the journey of becoming a professional dancer is incredibly personal – as no two experiences are the same. My personal perspective and ethos - a professional classical dancer requires a plethora of diverse dexterities and an innate talent to interpret and communicate stories and feelings through the aesthetical form of dance. Yet what appears artful and flawless onstage is the result of much more than natural talent. There are other characteristics necessitated in the pursuit of a career in dance, such as physical as every movement pathway is a habit, even the bad ones, so making sure your body is maintained to its optimum is paramount along with mental stamina, perseverance, memory retention, patience and ongoing working knowledge to provoke and connect audiences to the magic of performance.

Combined with these attributes is finding the ‘right fit’ and the ‘right place’ that will work for you – just as I found with Annette Roselli and now the English National Ballet School. We are all different with individual strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to find the right team of people that you feel you can build a rapport and trust with, as you work closely under their guidance. Additionally, building a healthy perspective to competition. It is crucial to develop a constructive and proactive relationship with the talent that surrounds you. It’s imperative to cultivate an ability to structure your work and progress strategically. In short realising, accepting and appreciating that there are a lot of talented people in the one room, and it is essential to stay focused on yourself and utilise the competition as an impetus to grow and build the more unique side of your dancing rather than comparing yourself to others. And finally – Patience. Patience is not our enemy, but rather a dancer’s best friend. Patience is needed for the days when things are not going your way, or your body isn’t playing the game, patience for yourself as you retrain and relearn each and every day. The journey is your own, and it’s the journey through patience that sees personal gains, no matter how big or small.

Ultimately dance for me is an expression of something deeply within and this permeates through every performance, every rehearsal and every class. Dance for me is both intensely personal and externally expressive. It is the marriage between personal fulfilment and external expressions of joy.

What’s your dream role?

I have two dream roles, Basilio in Don Quixote and Philippe from The Flames of Paris

The choreography of Don Quixote is some of the most spectacular, hardest, most technically and physically demanding role of the classical repertory for a male dancer ever created. It is classical in style and movement vocabulary with elements of Spanish rhythms and flair both in the dancing and the music. Don Quixote's Basilio essence is an extrovert – his character is a combination of a fun and charming person who captures people’s hearts with his wits. He has a huge character, which needs to be captured and conveyed well in terms of movement combined with the technical aspect of dancing without losing the artistic value of the character. It’s the physicality of the role of Basillio that is undoubtedly one of the most challenging characters for a male dancer.

The Flames of Paris, based on the events of the French Revolution is a lively and energetic ballet, in which the pace of the action develops rapidly and whose significance needs no further explanation, The Flames of Paris is a continual source of joy and of conviction in ideals. The role of Philippe demands the male dancer embraces and harnesses the powerful and technical virtuosity required to fulfill this dramatic and flamboyant character. Dancing professionally in both of these roles would be a personal achievement and most definitely a dream come true.