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October 10, 2023

In Conversation With Master Class Project Taiwan Creator Shih-Huai Liang

Creator of Master Class Project Taiwan & Guest Soloist with Universal Ballet

Shih-Huai Liang, originally from Taipei, Taiwan trained at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington D.C. Upon graduation, Liang was invited to join the Universal Ballet Company in Korea in 2007 and was promoted to Soloist in 2015.

In 2016 he joined the Royal New Zealand Ballet as a Soloist performing roles including Roland Petit’s Carmem and Alexander Ekman’s Cacti. In 2018 Liang returned to Korea and rejoined the Universal Ballet where he created the title role of Hilarion in Graeme Murphy’s New Giselle - World Premier, as well as performing a variety of roles including Golden Idol in La Bayadère and Bluebird in The Sleeping Beauty.

In 2023, Liang became a Guest Artist with Universal Ballet, allowing him to pursue other projects and guest internationally. Liang is known for his strong classical technique as well as his versatility in contemporary repertoire.

Liang founded Master Class Project in 2017. The project has organized many masterclasses in Taiwan, inviting world-class ballet masters including Hee Seo, from the
American Ballet Theatre, HyeMin Hwang, and JaeYong Ohm, from the Universal Ballet.

Liang is one of the main characters in the documentary “Ballet in Tandem”. The film was released in Taiwan in 2022 and won the “Best International Feature Jury Award” at the AmDOC (American Documentary and Animation Film Festival) the same year.

Photo by BAKi

As a Taiwanese-New Zealander, I am intrigued by your profile because we share a similar background! However, I also know that ballet isn't as accessible in Taiwan as in other Asian countries. Can you tell me where you began your training?

Shih-Huai Liang: Sure. As you know, it's rare to see Taiwanese dancers, especially in classical ballet. While there are many great Taiwanese dancers who are active in contemporary dance, I am a special case when it comes to pursuing classical ballet education, especially in my generation.

The dance education system in Taiwan is not just about ballet. Dance education begins with Chinese folk dance or a traditional training system like Beijing opera. Students then move on to contemporary dance at a young age, sometimes as early as elementary school. There is a company in Taiwan called Cloud Gate that has a master grant system, which draws all the training systems in Taiwan. (There is a company in Taiwan called Cloud Gate that draws all the training systems in Taiwan together.)

There is no specific training school for Russian or other styles of ballet in Taiwan. Students will learn everything in dance studios, which are like after-school programs. Dance education in Taiwan is a whole package that includes everything from Chinese folk dance to modern dance.

My background is similar. I started learning everything but realized that I was more interested in ballet. I was accepted to the National University of the Arts in Taiwan, which is one of the top arts universities in Taipei. They have a seven-year program where you can enter the university during high school. I was in my second year of high school when one of my friends and I decided to participate in a competition. At that time, we had limited information about competitions, so we sent in a video to Prix de Lausanne, which was the only competition we knew about. After participating in the competition, I realized that I was fascinated by the ballet world.

At age 17, I had to make a decision to either give up ballet or just focus on contemporary dance like most Taiwanese dancers, or leave Taiwan and pursue ballet abroad. I had help from a couple of teachers who had experience abroad, and we made a VHS tape of my dancing and sent it out to North Carolina School of the Arts, Kirov Academy in Washington DC, and the School of American Ballet (SAB). I was accepted to North Carolina, but they required me to submit an English score to be able to enter. Since I couldn't speak a word of English at the time, I had to give up that opportunity. I then decided to attend Kirov Academy in Washington DC, and the rest is history.

After two years at Kirov, I auditioned for many places and ended up dancing with Columbia Classical Ballet in South Carolina for a year. After gaining experience, I wanted to audition for a bigger company. I auditioned all around America and eventually met Julia Moon, the general director of Universal Ballet in Korea, at the New York International Competition. That's how I ended up in Korea.

You have danced in the U.S., New Zealand, and South Korea, making you quite the globe-trotter. How did your dance training in Taiwan evolve into such an international career?

Shih-Huai: After spending about seven years in Korea (from 2008 to 2016), I wanted to explore other parts of the world. I had actually attempted to leave Korea before, in 2010, but it didn't work out at the time. I was particularly interested in Europe and auditioned for positions there. However, during one audition, I had to submit a tape and ended up being offered a position in rural New Zealand instead. I worked there for a year and a half with Francesco Ventriglia.

Unfortunately, the director had to resign due to family issues, and the new director's style didn't quite align with my own goals. So, I left the company and considered going to Europe again, but ended up back in Korea.

Photo by BAKi

Congratulations on your third year of Master Class Project Taiwan, which you founded. How easy or difficult is it to run these classes while dancing in a different region? Additionally, why was it important for you to create a platform like this for young dancers?

Shih-Huai: My vision for this project was not limited to Taiwan alone. It's interesting how the project first began. I was in New Zealand when the ABT principal dancer, Hee Seo reached out to me. She was interested in reaching out to some other countries around Korea for them to compete in YAGP Korea since the Japanese competitors couldn't come to Korea at that time. She asked if there were any students from Taiwan interested in going. I helped her translate all the regulations into Mandarin, posted on my Facebook page with an audience of around 3000 followers, and connected with some studios in Taiwan.

Eventually, some Taiwanese students came to Korea to compete. Hee Seo, who also has a foundation in Korea, offered to come to Taiwan to do a masterclass. I became the presenter and arranged everything, including the studio and schedule, for the first masterclass, which was just a one-day program with two classes and an interview with Hee Seo.

I noticed that the kids reacted positively, and it felt like a flashback to when I first saw a ballet performance in 2004. I found it interesting that Asian dancers could make it into major Western ballet companies as principals, and it had a different impact on the kids. Hee Seo wearing pointe shoes teaching the class and showing the barre combinations had a unique impact. I felt like this was something that was missing in Taiwan, so I continued to try it out.

Looking back on my younger days as a dancer, I can appreciate the importance of having mentors and role models. They can be inspiring for any young dancer, although some students have more accessibility than others, such as those living in towns with national or regional ballet companies. What is your perspective on the ballet landscape in Taiwan?

Shih-Huai: The current system in Taiwan remains the same, and it's unfortunate that there doesn't seem to be a clear vision for the future of ballet or dance. It feels like we're not striving towards a goal, and that's a pity. This is also the reason why I organize masterclasses - to provide opportunities for young dancers to learn and grow without having to go through the same struggles that I did.

When I went to America, I had teachers who helped me find the right school to attend, and I want to do the same for kids in Taiwan who want to pursue ballet. It's important to me to be able to give back and help the next generation of dancers.

Photo by BAKi

I spoke with Movement Mom's founder and your colleague, Sae Hyun Kwon, who dispelled many misconceptions about dance in Asia. Do you think that with the world's interconnectedness, especially with advancements in technology, it is more accessible and plausible for young Taiwanese dancers to follow in your footsteps and have a successful international ballet career?

Shih-Huai: Yes, I believe so. This generation has more resources and can access information much more easily than we could. I remember having to ask my teachers which VHS tapes they had so I could watch legendary ballet performances. Now, everything is just a click away on the internet. However, sometimes having too much information can lead to a lack of desire for knowledge and skill.

Taiwanese students need guidance on how to pursue international ballet careers. With the right mindset and guidance, I believe they can achieve success more easily than I did.

What is your vision and future ambition for Master Class Project Taiwan, and how can people support it?

Shih-Huai: My Master Class Project started with just one day in the first year, but I realized that it could be something we can keep pushing. In the second year, I invited two teachers who are also a couple and have been principal dancers for decades. I personalized the program around their expertise in partnering and divided it into two levels for different age groups.

For the younger age group, they do one class and then a variation, while the older group does one ballet class and a pas de deux class. In Taiwan, there aren't many ballet schools, so students don't have many opportunities to try partnering. Even if they try learning to partner through repertoire, they don't have the foundation of how to find balance and basic techniques. So I aimed to introduce something specialized for this teacher and make the program around them.

My vision is to transform the Master Class Project into a three-day, four-day, or even a one-week summer program. I want people to learn more and develop themselves, not just to have an experience once a year. If it becomes a one-week program, we can have a presentation at the end to let students feel like they accomplished something.

I also want to expand the project to other places, such as Korea, and bring in talented Taiwanese artists to teach. In that case, the project can become Master Class Korea. I don't want this program to be just an import of talent to Taiwan, but a real exchange where we can explore talented contemporary dancers and artists.

People can support Master Class Project Taiwan by attending the program and spreading the word to others who may be interested. 

Top Image: Photo by BAKi

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