Born in an industrial town in Southern China, Chengwu Guo’s journey to Australia is the epitome of a Cinderella story.
A natural gymnast, he excelled in the physical aspects of ballet and won a place at the prestigious Beijing Dance Academy – where the training was intense, and the fees exorbitant.
“The school fee was like 20,000 yuan a year but my parents only made 1,000 yuan a month so yeah they were having a big problem to pay my school fee and they did all they could and my family also supported me,” he said.
His parents worked around the clock and borrowed money from relatives to continue Chen’s training, and it paid off.
After winning an international dance competition he was awarded a scholarship to the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne.
He arrived in the city as a 17-year-old, but there was one problem.
He knew nothing about Melbourne and had limited English.
“I said ‘Food food,’ my roomates took me to IGA and said ‘There is food.’ So I’m looking around and I thought ok there isn’t any restaurants here, so I bought two bags of bread and two litres of milk and lived on that for a week.”
Now principal artist with the Australian Ballet, Chen has been able to bring his parents over from China to live in Melbourne and support them financially.
Now he is preparing to return to China for the first time, as the headliner for the Australian Ballet’s Cinderella.
“I thought if I could ever do it for once I could be happy, and I thought I could pull it off and now I get to do it in China for my home people it’s a great honour,” he said.
Chen featured in the film Mao’s Last Dancer, playing a teenage Li Cunxin, and was invited to compete in China’s reality TV dancing show – So You Think You Can Dance, which he won to a viewing audience of 80 million.
But playing the role of Prince Charming opposite his real-life girlfriend Ako Kondo as Cinderella brings it own challenges.
“Mostly she’ll say why didn’t you wash that dish, ballet-wise we come to work and try and sort out everything, we never really fight.”
Ako said having a relationship off stage has helped with the chemistry on stage.
“I’m really honest to him in rehearsals because I know he won’t get offended by me and he’s really honest with me and I think that really works because we try to help each other so we try to get better together,” she said.
The pair’s rise to prominence on the stage, has them wanting to give something back.
Ako says both her and Chen intend to pass on their knowledge after their dancing careers finish.
“My life’s been all about ballet and this is my profession I don’t want to leave that behind. I want it with me my whole life so teaching ballet will be my next career,” said Ako.