On May 23, the Hong Kong Ballet will stage a beautiful production, Les Sylphides and More, in the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. But the audience will see more than just expressive dancing and beautiful tutus: the scars of dancer Vanessa Lai will be exposed for all to see.
Vanessa, 19, is a driven, motivated and talented ballerina. She's an apprentice at the Hong Kong Ballet, who is on the cusp of entering the Corps de Ballet level at an unusually young age. But in order to get to this impressive position, she has had to overcome several obstacles, each of which has left an emotional scar.
There were rejections from dance companies; injuries; even disapproval from her father, who to this day tells her to give up her passion. However, Vanessa hasn't let these things stop her. Instead, she's used them as fuel for the fire that is her dedication to dance, showing a determination that is an inspiration to any young person with a dream.
Vanessa first became interested in ballet after watching The Nutcracker, when she was struck by the beauty of the show. She was especially enchanted by the ballerina in the role of the iconic Sugar Plum Fairy.
"It was magical," to watch her dance, Vanessa says. "I wanted to be just like her someday." It was then that her dream of dancing ballet professionally was born. But her journey from her inspiration at The Nutcracker to the present would be a bumpy one.
With the help of her mother, and to the annoyance of her father, Vanessa began her ballet training at the age of 11. This is extremely late in the world of ballet, as most professionals begin at age two or three.
"You have to start stretching when you're really young," Vanessa confesses. "Once you get older, you get stiffer. Actually, I was quite depressed because I was so stiff, and everyone else seemed so amazing."
When she auditioned for a prestigious dance school in Beijing, she was turned down because she lacked flexibility. She didn't stay discouraged for long, though. To become more flexible, she took gymnastics and did stretches every day. And Vanessa says there were upsides to beginning later. She saw her late start as a challenge to be overcome, which motivated her to work even harder for her goals. "Because I started late, I knew I had to push myself more," she says. "I would stay after class to get advice from my teacher, and I would practise extra hard."
After the rejection from the Beijing school, her mother started uploading Vanessa's dance videos to YouTube, where an anonymous commenter suggested she take part in the Youth America Grand Prix dance competition. Vanessa finally triumphed
when she was offered two scholarships after finishing in the top 12.
When she was 17, she got her big break: the lead role in a ballet called Satanella. However, during a rehearsal, her partner dropped her in the middle of a lift, badly bruising her left knee and leaving her unable to walk properly. Vanessa had to give up the role, but she certainly didn't give up on her dreams.
"I couldn't walk. It was awful," she laughs. "But after that, I was quite angry [that I lost the role], so I worked even harder."
Vanessa is particularly excited about the upcoming Les Sylphides, where she will perform as one of the fairies. The show is important because it will mark the end of her apprentice career and the beginning of her time as Corps de Ballet: an exciting new world of possibilities.
If there's anything to be learnt from Vanessa's story, it is to keep trying. No matter what curveballs life throws you, as Vanessa has proven, raw determination and hard work will get you far.
Vanessa says it better than anyone: "If it's your dream, if you really want to do it, then go for it, and never give up."