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Bradley and Erica Wong, Ballet Dancers

By SUSAN K. SUNDERLAND

The secret is to make it look effortless. Bradley and Erica Wong, brother and sister ballet dancers, are young masters at the art of dramatic dance. Performing in Hawaii State Ballet’s annual The Nutcracker, they leap, spin and pointe with grace and agility worthy of an Olympic athlete. Yet they are typical teens who love TV, the telephone and hanging out with friends.

What sets them apart from their peers is a 20-hour-per-week ballet practice schedule that cuts into leisure time. Six days a week, young Bradley and Erica don tights and leotards to become trained dancers.

The brother and sister are among 160 students of the Hawaii State Ballet studio and dance company. Ranging in age from 5 to 65, students of John and Gina Landovsky are dedicated to learning classical dance techniques that originated with European opera in the 17th century.

Today, ballet is an international art form, with top companies based all over the world. Ballet is said to be one of the hardest dance techniques to master. Yet it is one of the most beautiful forms of expression ever devised. It is an exquisite mix of sight and sound, stunning aesthetics and awesome technique. In ballet performances, true love always triumphs, evil is destroyed, and everybody has great legs.

A distinction for the Hawaii State Ballet (HSB) presentation is that it features an all-homegrown cast. There are no guest artists leaping in from the Mainland to perform the plum parts. Why should they? reacts director Landovsky. He says there are well-trained dancers here who can perform as well or sometimes better than Mainland counterparts.

That’s saying a lot about the respect and reputation of Landovsky’s ballet training and the rigors of perfection that he instills in his students.

As one ballet mom put it, “We’re homegrowing some remarkable ballet talent right here.”

Christine Weger, local attorney with two daughters taking ballet from Landovsky, says, “Hawaii is no artistic backwater. We’ve got homegrown ballet artists struggling to make it to the big time — right from a studio on Kapiolani Boulevard — and many of them are making it big.”

HSB Junior Company has been a stepping stone to the professional stage for many. Bradley, 16, and Erica, 13, might follow in the footsteps of other HSB dancers who were hired by professional ballet companies on the Mainland.

They include Amanda Schull, who recently starred in the Columbia-Sony movie about ballet called Center Stage. Schull was a student at HSB for 12 years. She currently is a dancer with the San Francisco Ballet. Former HSB student Elizabeth Mertz won the bronze medal for the United States at the 1995 International Ballet Competition in Helsinki, Finland. She is currently with the Joffrey Ballet. HSB alum Romi Bepp danced two seasons with American Ballet Theatre in New York and is in her sixth season with Boston Ballet.

Of the aspiring Wongs, Landovsky sees tremendous potential.

“Bradley has come a long way and is achieving technical perfection,” he says. “Erica is very talented and can make it big. I’m looking forward to a lot from her in the future.”

Gina (Surles) Landovsky adds, “Bradley seems at his peak physically and is getting more expressive in his dancing. Erica could be a star in a major company. She has flexibility, can turn out, jump, and get her legs over her head. She has everything that matters.”

Years of stretching at the ballet barre and after-school practice have paid off handsomely for the young dancers. Audiences will see Bradley and Erica in key Nutcracker roles, including the pas de deux (two dancers) of the Snow King and Snow Queen in a winter wonderland. Yes, there will be snow on stage, thanks to a skilled stage crew who has some magic of its own.

Watch for exceedingly difficult jump and traveling steps, such as the grand allegro, in which the body seems suspended in the air, and sissonne fermee, which is a stunning lift that makes the ballerina (woman) appear to be flying. Bradley will do a one-handed lift and make it look effortless. Neither partner should show any strain.

As you’re watching this extraordinary feat, realize that the danseur (male ballet dancer) must have the strength to lift the girl without overbalancing or dropping her. The girl needs balance as well as strength in the feet and legs and in the wrists for hand grips.

Erica adds, “Ballet dancers experience many uncomfortable and painful times. Toe shoes can be very painful, no matter how many protective pads or how much tape you wear. Positions and movements are not easy, but you must make them look easy, no matter what.”

The Punahou seventh-grader has been on her toes since age 5 when she enrolled in ballet school. Big brother Bradley, perhaps taking a cue from the musical Chorus Line, looked at this dancing sister and bragged, “I can do that.”

Actually, all four of the Wong kids, including older siblings Lisa, 21, and Grantley, 19, took ballet lessons. Mom, Darlene Wong, says it was selfish convenience on her part. “I wanted to make only one stop for the kids’ activities.” You know how parents are about after-school chauffeuring.

But dad, dentist Roger T.L. Wong, found ballet to be kid-friendly and very beneficial for child development. He recounts, “When I started my young boys in ballet many friends and relatives were against the idea. They felt it would make them too sissy or even homosexual. Kids have issues growing up. They tried to keep their training a secret from their classmates and teachers.”

A change of schools (to Saint Louis) “where classmates were gentlemen and respected his skills” helped Grantley overcome shyness about being a dancer. Today, he is attending Pacific University in California on a merit scholarship because of his ballet involvement. He is continuing his training as a hobby at the Oregon Ballet Theatre School.

Lisa is a senior at Wellesley College in Boston and works part time as a cardio kickboxing instructor at the athletic department. Ballet conditioning has helped her in kickboxing and kung-fu.

“She can kick like a mule,” says her father. “Once she knocked the wind out of me with a lightning fast kick to the chest even though I had a protective vest.”

Bradley, a junior at Saint Louis, confirms: “We do a lot of things athletes do, like lifting and jumping. Boxers, football players and kick boxers do ballet for flexibility. Guys might think it’s only for girls, but it’s pretty hard.”

If you’ve done as many jumps and spins as Bradley over the years, you’d want to keep your head straight about those matters. To avoid getting mentally distracted or dizzy — in life and in dance — he says to keep your eyes focused in front of you and always face forward. Good advice, son.

Dr. Wong says, “Ballet is not only an art form, it is good for body and mind. Ballet is not seasonal; training is all year ’round. There is no chance to get out of shape. In addition to being non-violent, dance is relatively safe compared to other sports.”

He adds with parental wisdom, “There is no time for mischief. Dance is a healthy outlet and complements a stressful academic day at school. My kids have developed good acting skills and are not shy to perform in public. They have learned a sense of responsibility through ballet training, getting them off to a good start for adult life and becoming useful contributing citizens.”

Don’t candy-coat it, this reporter teases. Don’t tell me Bradley and Erica don’t fight and fuss at home in typical sibling rivalry.

“They’re so tired after dance practice, they don’t have time,” says their mother.

There you have it, folks. Ballet: the answer to juvenile delinquency.

Before you force your youngsters into ballet lessons, let them first experience a live performance of The Nutcracker. The blend of Tchaikovsky’s classical music, the visual delights of fabulous costumes and vivid stage sets, plus the timeless storyline of a young girl and her fantasy journey with a nutcracker doll, will keep them spellbound for two hours (with a 15-minute intermission).

The second act in particular (don’t leave at intermission or you’ll miss it) is known for its most magical and exhilarating moments. The Nutcracker Prince and lead character Clara travel in a magical sleigh through the beautiful Land of Snow where the Snowflakes dance for them. Their travels continue to the Kingdom of Sweets, the enchanted home of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Excitement builds during the Waltz of the Flowers, culminating in a grand finale.

The Russian composer Tchaikovsky’s famous compositions for Nutcracker have never been surpassed for melodic intensity and instrumental brilliance. They represent virtually the first use of serious dramatic music for dance.

A good ballet, according to HSB’s Landovsky, does not need explanation. It visually illustrates a piece of music. Ballet creates the overall theatrical spectacle. More than any other art form, ballet is designed for the all-sensual delight of audiences.

If you have attended past performances of The Nutcracker, plan to see it again. While the music and traditional choreography are followed faithfully, subtle changes take place to keep it fresh for returning audiences. Movements will be modified to fit the quality and abilities of dancers. And, of course, there are the individual expressions and mime of the dancers themselves who must tell the story without uttering a word. Their movements and facial expressions bring the characters to life.

You’ll also learn ballet terminology and broaden your vocabulary, with words like pirouette (turn or spin), plié (knee bend), and pointe (dance on toes). Imagine your popularity in the holiday party conversations.

But mostly one should attend The Nutcracker because it is a Christmas tradition that transcends cultural backgrounds (although European in origin), ages (kids to grandparents), and musical tastes (classical to contemporary). It is an iconic representation of world-class talent, having music by exceptionally gifted orchestrator Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, choreography originated by Marius Petipa, and dance brought to the modern stage by people like choreographer George Balanchine, and premier danseurs Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev.

Locally, you’ll want to see the show because Bradley and Erica Wong, teen siblings from St. Louis Heights, are in it. They have prepared for eight years to entertain and fascinate with their dance steps, turns, leaps and mime. They’ve given up MTV, hanging out at the mall and gossiping on the phone for hours so they can do a pas de deux for you.

Why have they been so committed and disciplined for a few turns on stage? It’s the only language any performer learns and understands.

Applause, applause, applause.

Hawaii State Ballet presents its 18th annual performance of The Nutcracker Dec. 10-12 and Dec. 17-19 at Mamiya Theatre, 3142 Waialae Ave. Curtain is 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, with an extra 6 p.m. show Dec. 12. Tickets $16-$22 adults, discounts for seniors and children 12 and younger. 947-2755.

12.10.04


Posted: December 10, 2004 @ 2:38 PM HST


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