Chun Wai Chan

Shirt by Vaquera. Vintage pants.

Live from New York: Chun Wai Chan

Last year, after nearly a decade at Houston Ballet, Chun Wai Chan was ready for something new. After being promoted to the rank of principal a mere five years after joining the company, the Chinese dancer felt that his position was no longer as demanding as he would have liked. His parents agreed: "The last time they visited me in Houston, they were saying that I'm too comfortable," he laughs, "so they wanted me to push myself and challenge myself with whatever I could."

That encouragement led Chan to New York City Ballet, which offered him a role as a soloist in January 2020 after a few days of classes and auditions. He told the leadership of Houston Ballet about his decision and began to prepare for his move east, but when it became clear that Covid-19 would be shutting down live performance for months at least, he found himself in an awkward position between companies and went to stay with his family in Hong Kong in June. "I stayed very positive, like, 'Everything will be fine. I need to keep myself in shape and whenever the stage comes back, I will be ready for the stage,'" he recalls. It was not until that October that City Ballet announced his hiring for the 2021-22 season, and he finally made his début with the company this past September and performed the lead role of the Cavalier in The Nutcracker, one of New York’s most celebrated holiday traditions, for the first time this weekend.

Even among the world's top-tier dance companies, City Ballet stands apart for the breadth of its repertory and its devotion to commissioning new work. Any given season will include dozens of different pieces, most performed by multiple casts. Most dancers will learn only a few new roles a season, but for Chan, every single step was unfamiliar, a situation he found both stimulating and staggering. "This is exactly what I want, to step out of my comfort zone, to be in a new environment, to learn all the different styles and repertoire," he says. "It's overwhelming. There's a lot of new stuff that I've never touched and it's a whole different world, but I'm very into that. That was exactly the reason why I came from China all the way to Houston and now coming here, it's the same thing."

After a few months, Chan says that New York already feels like home, which he credits to the warm welcome City Ballet has shown him. "There's a lot of new teachers and new colleagues and I'm learning their names and their faces with the masks," he says. "It's very hard for me to memorize around a hundred people's names and when I see their real faces, I have to block their eyes down to recognize them again, but everyone is very friendly. I know the majority of them must be smiling all the time, I just cannot see."

The Nutcracker continues through January 2 at New York City Ballet. Read this story and many more in print by preordering our third issue here. See the full Live in New York series here.

Hair by Tina Outen at Streeters. Makeup by Andrew Colvin at Streeters. Set design by Jacob Burstein at MHS Artists. Photographer’s assistant: Kyrre Kristoffersen. Stylist’s assistant: Claire Sullivan. Hairstylist's assistant: Amesha Alston. Makeup artist's assistant: Crisdanil Hidalgo. Set designer's assistant: Casilda Garcia Lopez. Digital technician: Leslie Knott. Production by Heather Robbins at CLM.

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