Raymond Chai has made a proper job of dancing.
HE knows all about the grace of the ballet world, learning to “speak” with his body and perfecting his steps along the way ever since he took up dance at age 13.
But until today, Raymond Chai has not learned to see the “colour” in his arts.
“I had never gone for an audition thinking that I might not get the role because I was not of the right skin colour,” Chai said of his earlier days living abroad as a dancer and actor.
Racism, he said, remained somewhat alien to him.
“I never had to play an Oriental part because the performance needed a Chinese person.”
The rare times he did play an Asian role were in Miss Saigon (Stuttgart, Germany, from 1996 till 1999), The King And I (London West End, 2000 till 2002) and Anything Goes (Royal National Theatre and the West End, 2003 till 2005).
Chai first left for London in 1978 when he got a scholarship to study ballet at the Rambert School of Ballet.
“It was a lot of hard work, dancing the whole day, but I didn’t mind. Every day I felt closer to becoming a professional dancer. I remember the teachers being very hard and expecting a lot from all of us in the class,” he recalled.
“The school was tough – if you were not up to the standard, you were out.”
Four months before he graduated in 1980, Chai was offered a place at the National Ballet of Portugal.
“I was so excited that I accepted the contract immediately and left in three days,” he said.
As the youngest in that ballet company then (he was 19), Chai said he learnt a lot during the eight years he was there doing both classical and modern repertoire.
“It was my time in Portugal that made me what I am today as a ballet teacher and choreographer.”
Chai has also lived and performed in Hamburg, Stuttgart, Zurich and Lisbon. In Lisbon, he won the top prize in the National Choreographic Competition in 1985.
In Britain, he has worked with the Royal National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
“I’m grateful to have experienced nearly every part of the art form from classical ballet to musical theatre, to acting. And I’ve performed in opera houses for royal families and heads of state.”
At one point, the Royal Shakespeare Company was doing a production of Kiss Me Kate in which Chai became the first Asian to play a non-Asian role in the West End.
Currently Chai, who has been living in London for 13 years now, is chief ballet master of the Ballet Black Company (Britain).
He is also a lecturer in ballet technique at the London Contemporary Dance School where students come from top conservatories around the world.
“Each year, about 2,000 applicants audition for the 40 places available,” he said.
Chai is also a guest teacher at several dance companies, guiding professional dancers who have completed their training.
Looking back, Chai said his early days were tough as he had to keep up with the competition.
“In a way, things are easier now for the young people because dancing and performing are considered proper jobs. The market is also bigger,” he said.
He recalled the many auditions in which he was rejected and merely told, “Thank you very much.”
But Chai considered himself fortunate that he had never been unemployed.
“I have always had work. I never had to do something else to support myself. I have stayed in business, so to speak.”
He attributed it to being in the right place at the right time. “I am really blessed. God has played a big part in my life.”
Fong Siew Lan, his ballet teacher during his childhood days in Ipoh, deserves mention, too, as she had been instrumental in his formative training.
“She was a very good teacher. She knew I was very interested and gave me extra classes. She helped make my body limber.”
(Incidentally, Bond Girl Michelle Yeoh was also in his class.)
Chai also feels lucky that his parents never objected to him wanting to be a ballet dancer.
“I love being on stage. I have always wanted to be a ballet dancer. I already knew then that ballet wasn’t just a game for me.”
Chai comes back to Malaysia every year to visit his family. Besides, he misses the food and the sunshine.
The Malaysian arts scene, he said, seems to be thriving although he hopes there will be more training for artistes in the advanced and professional levels.
“With better training, Malaysians can be just as good as the Westerners. We are not any lesser than them.”
There must, however, be a bigger desire to succeed, he said.
His advice for youngsters who want to dance their way to a career?
“You’ve got to be committed. You should follow your heart, (even if) that may sound corny,” he said.
NAME: Raymond Chai
HOMETOWN: Ipoh, Perak
EDUCATION: SRK Methodist (ACS), SMK Methodist (ACS) Ipoh; Rambert School of Ballet, London, Britain
OCCUPATION: Ballet lecturer and choreographer
CURRENT BASE: London, Britain
YEARS ABR OAD: 32 years