Zhang Jinhao is an accidental dancer

A ballet performer from Northeast China is winning fans in Britain, but the journey started by chance.

Zhang Jinhao finds himself onstage, living out his love of ballet-and that passion shows.

To the 20-year-old rising star of the English National Ballet, it is about "feeling the details" of the gestures, emotions and the personalities of the characters he plays.

Zhang, who started studying ballet at the age of 4, has earned international acclaim, including winning the English National Ballet's emerging dancer award last year.

But he started studying ballet by accident while growing up in Dalian in Northeast China's Liaoning province.

"When I was young, I was very thin and did not eat meals properly, so my mother wanted me to do more exercise. She took me to a kung fu class, but sadly the class was full," he recalls.

The teacher in charge of registration told Zhang's mother that the difference between kung fu and ballet is small, and urged Zhang to try ballet instead.

Zhang joined the London-based ballet company in 2014.

Onstage, he wins audiences over with his technique and ability to create believable characters-be it a wealthy boss, a loyal helper or a beautiful swan.

His youthful liveliness and passion for ballet comes through strongly when he speaks.

Sitting down for an interview in a small office above his rehearsal studio, he elegantly moves his head, hands and feet in the air to demonstrate how concepts like love, promise and suicide are acted out in ballet. Suddenly, these soundless movements seem to vividly describe what writers have attempted to convey for generations.

Zhang loves to play Basilio from Don Quixote. The ballet was originally choreographed in 1869, based on episodes from the Spanish novel Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes.

When competing in the Prix de Lausanne in 2013, Zhang performed the passionate dance of a proud Basilio as he is about to get married. The fast-moving excerpt, lasting for a little more than a minute, consists of jumps and turns, and paints a lively picture of Spanish culture. He had performed the role since high school, living up to its technical and artistic challenges.

Despite years of practice, Zhang felt nervous when he competed in the Prix de Lausanne, which turned out to be a life-changing opportunity for him as he won a scholarship to study at the English National Ballet School as a result.

He recalls the competition's stage sloped.

"I was so nervous," Zhang says. He had heard about many dancers falling due to the stage design.

To overcome this fear, he focused more on expressing Basilio's joyful feelings about his wedding. "I did it, and I didn't make a single mistake."

Zhang fell in love with ballet soon after he started to learn it.

"I was the only boy in a class full of girls, and they teased me about it. I was embarrassed. But, at the same time, I enjoyed the attention for being able to stand out."

After four years, it was time for Zhang to choose the path of becoming a professional ballet dancer.

"I chose it. But at the age of 8, I didn't know what being a professional ballet dancer meant at all," he says.

Zhang joined a school affiliated with the Liaoning Ballet, where he trained for six years before starting his undergraduate degree in ballet at Tongji University in Shanghai.

The milestones in Zhang's career came one after other, but one big disappointment taught Zhang how much he really loves the dance genre.

In 2013, right after his success at the Prix de Lausanne, he continued to train for another international competition in Moscow.

"I was not resting at all and pushed my body to the extreme. I was tired and didn't take care of myself properly."

Zhang had never had a problem with discipline and just kept pushing himself. But right before the competition, he fractured a bone. For the next four months, he was bed-ridden, unable to move his foot.

"I was disappointed and frustrated. I was scared that I may not be able to dance again after the cast was off."

Those days were his darkest. He experienced intense grief and self-doubt.

Then came his epiphany.

"I realized that I could not live without ballet. I never knew how much I loved ballet until then."

Zhang is working toward his next goal, which is to eventually perform lead roles at the English National Ballet.

"Every performance is a new challenge because I have to do my best to give the audience the best experience."

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