"Everything is ballet," she says, laughing softly. "So sad."
It would be sad—if ballet didn't make her so happy. For Cheng, the tedium of training feeds back into her love for ballet in a continuous loop. "I feel I need this," Cheng says. "I need this right now. We have all these little things that we have to do. They surround us. But in the studio, I feel time stops. At that moment, I'm doing this dance. I can be in this dance, this life.â
Cheng, 29, was born in Chenzhou, China, in Hunan province. She first saw ballerinas on television when she was a child. They seemed pure, fairy-like, almost inhuman. Little girls today probably say the same thing about Cheng—she's slender and delicate, with a bubbly laugh and big, dark eyes that grow larger when she talks about ballet. She's been dancing since was 5, when she started taking ballet at an after-school program where her father worked. Her teacher approvingly noted her small head and long neck.
Ballet is relatively new in China; the first school was established in 1954. In 1994, when Cheng was 10, she was one of 60 students accepted out of 2,000 who auditioned to be in the first class at the Guangzhou Ballet, in China's third-largest city. She had to leave her family to attend the school and stay in a dorm. Her ballet masters were strict: One woman sometimes held a flame or a needle under Cheng's raised leg so she wouldn't lower it (the school doesn't allow that anymore, Cheng says).
"She wanted you to be good," Cheng says. "With all the competition, you have to fight for yourself. All the pressure, it's very hard."
After five years in school—an accelerated program for that first class—Cheng was one of 12 dancers chosen for the Guangzhou corps de ballet. Six years later, wanting to travel and seeking a more varied repertoire, she moved to the contemporary La La La Human Steps and then to Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, both in Montreal.
Cheng arrived in Portland in 2011, starting as a principal under artistic director Christopher Stowell. OBT's strong classical repertoire attracted her, and she soon landed lead roles in Giselle and Swan Lake. Cheng seems to dance effortlessly. She has strong musicality and is nimble and quick. When it comes to technique, she's hard on herself, especially with jumps and turns, though the average viewer couldn't find her mistakes. The casting for this season hasn't been completed, and lead roles usually alternate between a handful of skilled and deserving dancers. But Cheng will likely be among them.
"I want to be in the middle of the stage, dancing by myself," she says. "I want to do that, so I have to be so strong. I have to try my best to do it."