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Zhang helps to celebrate Houston Ballet

By MAY ZHOU in Houston, Texas | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-09-18 05:50
Choreographer Zhang Disha (front row, right) and artists from the Houston Ballet rehearse Elapse. [AMITAVA SARKAR / COURTESY OF HOUSTON BALLET]

About 30 dancers with the Houston Ballet gathered at the company's practice hall on the fifth floor in the city's downtown on a Friday afternoon in mid-August. Under the guidance of Zhang Disha, a Chinese dancer and choreographer, the dancers repeatedly practiced a five-minute segment.

It was the toward the end of Zhang's three weeks working with the Houston Ballet. Invited to choreograph a dance piece for the ballet's 50th anniversary celebration, Zhang was trying to achieve as much as she could to perfect her chosen piece, Elapse.

With translation help from Thea Liao, a former member of the Houston Ballet, some sporadic changes were made, and by the end of one hour, the later rehearsal looked markedly improved from the first one.

"This is the shortest time I have ever had to choreograph a new piece. It's has been challenging. However, this has been a wonderful opportunity and experience for me. It has improved my skills," said Zhang, who usually has had at least four weeks to create a new piece.

Elapse is a 16-minute music piece that moves her, said Zhang. From the music, she created a dance to express a sense of loss and passing-away – passage of time, loss of loved ones.

"We are always losing something living our lives. I believe different people will feel different about my work depending on their ages and personal experiences," said Zhang.

She found the music beautiful but challenging. There were only two climaxes in the music that lacked major structural change. "However, it also means that any possibility is possible."

Zhang has always tried something new in her work. "I don't want my next piece to be an imitation of my last work. Under the pressure of time constraints here, I feel that I have improved my skill through the experience," she said, adding that she might have done better if given another week.

Zhang was spotted by Houston Ballet's artistic director Stanton Welch, who had been watching her for some time.

"I saw Disha's emotional heart-pounding movement, How Beautiful Is Heaven, years ago in Hamburg and knew we needed to bring her here," said Welch.

The 50th anniversary seemed to be a perfect time to do just that, and the invitation was extended to Zhang to create any piece she desired.

"It is an honor to be the first American company to present her work," Welch said.

It's no wonder that Zhang caught the eyes of Welch.

A graduate of the Beijing Dance Academy in 2002, Zhang was a member of the Beijing Modern Dance Company from 2002 until 2007. Her 2003 work Temporary Residence Permit in collaboration with Hu Lei established her as a choreographer in China.

In 2007, Zhang left to explore a career as a freelance choreographer. In the past decade, she has made a name for herself in the modern dance world with her groundbreaking works and has won dozens of awards.

Her Three Points in 2009 won first prize in the No-Ballet International Modern Dance Choreography Competition in Germany and first prize in the Masdanza International Modern Dance Choreography Competition in Spain. In China, she won the prestigious Wenhua Award in 2010.

In 2013, legendary dancer and choreographer John Neumeier invited Zhang to perform her award-winning work Linen Braids at the Nijinsky Gala in Germany.

At the 2018 USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi, her Sad Bird received the Choreography Award.

Zhang considers the invitation from Houston Ballet the highest professional honor she has received so far.

"The Houston Ballet dancers are very professional and diligent. They paid close attention to my instruction and quickly grasped what I wanted to express. If they are not sure about certain things, they would ask and discuss with me until they fully understood. They are the best dancers I have ever worked with," Zhang said.

Elapse will make its world premiere with the Houston Ballet on Sept 19, as part of the ballet's mixed repertoire program. It is scheduled for six performances.

"I have always wanted to work with US dancers. I feel incredibly honored to have my first US work to be performed by such a world-class ballet company," Zhang said.

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