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Ballet BC's 25th anniversary, and a dancer's turning point

A silver anniversary, a Gold Mountain: Two unrelated events, 25 years ago, come together onstage in Vancouver this week.

On April 11, 1986, Ballet BC staged its first performance at Vancouver's Queen Elizabeth Theatre, with a company of 16 dancers (including two apprentices), a budget of $212,000 and the ambitions of some "smartass little ballet people," recalls co-founder David Y.H. Lui, a long-time Vancouver impresario. There were four works on the program, including a world premiere by Reid Anderson and Aurora's Wedding, based on the third act of Sleeping Beauty. "We covered the flag, we covered the classics, we covered brand-new, we covered everything," says Lui.

A world away in northwestern China, 21-year-old Wen Wei Wang had received an invitation: Vancouver's Lorita Leung Chinese Dance Company was looking for a professional male dancer from China to perform in its Expo 86 production, Gold Mountain. Wang, then a member of the Lanzhou army song and dance troupe, accepted.

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The cultural exchange to Vancouver that March marked Wang's first trip outside China.

"When I arrived in Vancouver, I felt like I just came from under the ground, coming out to see the world," Wang, now 46, remembers. "It was like a wonderland."

In Vancouver, Wang took classes with Grant Strate - then director of what would become the School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University. At Wang's request, Strate, a celebrated choreographer, created a solo work for Wang.

For Wang, who was born in Xian, his time in Vancouver was an eye-opening experience, full of colour - the cherry blossoms were out, he remembers - in stark contrast to the grey world he felt China was then.

"When I took the airplane back to China, I felt like I wished the airplane would just crash, so I wouldn't have to go back," he says.

"After I left Vancouver, the image - the mountains, the ocean - the picture was always in my mind. Every night, when I closed my eyes, I saw it. I witnessed my life. I witnessed what I'd been doing and I thought: I want a change."

In 1990, Strate visited the Beijing Dance Academy, near the PLA (People's Liberation Army) Art Academy, where Wang was studying choreography. While there, Strate offered Wang a two-month scholarship for the SFU intensive program the following summer.

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Wang accepted immediately, but it took him almost 10 months to get a passport - and he had to quit the army's academy and dance troupe in order to apply for the passport as an individual citizen. "All that I had been building, the job security - and I threw it away," he says. "My parents thought I was crazy."

Wang finally got his passport in April. But it was too late, the Canadian authorities told him, to get a visa in time for the summer program in Vancouver.

By chance, Fred Bild, then Canadian ambassador to China, had a daughter, Sarah, who was going to be attending that same dance program at SFU. In Vancouver, Strate pleaded Wang's case to Sarah's mother, Eva Bild.

Back in Beijing, the Bilds invited Wang to their apartment. During dinner, Fred Bild remembers, Wang volunteered to get up and dance. "We didn't have any appropriate music to play for him, but that didn't bother him," says Bild, now retired from the foreign service and living in Montreal. "He was able to display his talent nonetheless."

A week later, as Wang remembers it, he had his visa. "I was lucky," says Wang. "Or maybe it was meant to be."

Three days after arriving in Vancouver, Wang - still jet-lagged - auditioned for Judith Marcuse Projects and was accepted on the spot. Two years later, he joined Ballet BC and danced with the company until 2000. In 2003, he founded Wen Wei Dance, where he is artistic director.

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There have been many projects since then - including choreographing Vancouver Opera's production of Nixon in China - and many accolades, such as the Rio Tinto Alcan Performing Arts Award. Last year, Wang took his acclaimed work Cock-Pit to Montreal, where he saw the Bilds for the first time since he danced for them in their Beijing apartment.

"It all worked out for the best, and we're very pleased," says Fred Bild, whose daughter, Sarah, is also now a dancer/choreographer and artistic director of her own company Bildanse.

Now, 25 years after his introduction to Vancouver, Wang returns to Ballet BC with a commission marking the company's 25th anniversary.

In Motion is a celebration of the relationship between sound and movement, music and dance. About 25 minutes long, it will be performed to music provided onstage by the local chamber orchestra The Turning Point Ensemble - themselves celebrating their fifth anniversary.

In Motion is not autobiographical like Cock-Pit, an examination of Wang's sexual awakening while studying dance in Cultural Revolution-era China. But it does contain echoes of his life: one that was set further in motion 25 years ago with a trip to Vancouver - or, as the Chinese sometimes call it, Gold Mountain.

"People from China come here looking for gold," says Wang, who now shares a house with Strate, who ultimately sponsored him. "I didn't find gold, but to come from another country and to continue your profession is not that easy, especially if you're an artist. So I found a different kind of gold: I am happy."

Ballet BC's 25th Anniversary Celebration featuring new works by Gioconda Barbuto, Serge Bennathan, Donald Sales and Wen Wei Wang is at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver April 14-16 (

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