Gina Tse is Principal Dancer at the Kungliga Baletten (of the Kungliga Operan, the Royal Swedish Opera). She won the Marianne Orlando Scholarship for her performances in 2011 and was named ‘Dancer of the Season’ for 2012. All this is amazing in itself, but what makes Gina my extraordinary expat for this month is that she has done all this whilst being a single parent of an enchanting and super-energetic 4 year old, Jacy.
I first met Gina when we were pregnant together; she was nearing the 8 month stage and I was a mere 4 down the line. She was lovely and funny and completely down to earth; in fact, I didn’t know she was a ballet dancer until we were already friends. But when I heard her extraordinary story, I was entranced. The passion started when Gina saw her elder sister, Emma, dance (‘I always wanted to do what sis was doing,’ Gina said to me, laughing). But what started as a convenient way of entertaining two little girls turned into proud moment after proud moment for Gina’s parents. Emma was set on her path to running her own successful ballet academy in Hong Kong and the first of many prizes and accolades came raining down on Gina’s head. Gina started ballet at a local class at 2.5 years and ended up with a full scholarship at the prestigious Royal Ballet School in Richmond, London; ‘not bad for a half-Chinese girl from Leeds’, as she puts it. It took skill, dedication and the ability to withstand pressure from Gina herself, who also credits her parents for her success. ‘Mum and dad found out how and where to apply; I could never have done it without them,’ Gina confided to me.
I had always assumed ballet dancing was a tough business and Gina’s stories didn’t change my view; at the Royal Ballet School, it was necessary to audition regularly just to keep your place. But the everyday grueling training that culminated in these assessments gave Gina the discipline she needed to succeed. ‘It was very strict,’ mused Gina. ‘I missed out on my childhood in some ways.’ The children were not allowed out apart from Saturday afternoons; they had to do all their own chores and be self-sufficient, but they also had to endure constant criticism, including being weighed every day, with the knowledge that if you failed your yearly assessment, you would be kicked out. Of the 25 girls who started in Gina’s class, only 10 remained by the time she was 16.
There was also the close-knit, complex nature of working with others who are both your peers and your competition. Living with people whose job is to perform and perfect performance meant that
if you gained or lost a lb. of weight, everyone would know. These people are your best friends; you go through this unique, special experience together. But at the same time, you are always trying to outperform everyone, knowing that there are only so many roles for so many people.
It was too much strain and stress for such a young person. During the last year of ballet school, Gina had to have foot surgery as a result of driving herself too hard. She missed the auditions that year and in recovery had gained weight, induced by bad dieting and stress. At that time, she thought she’d never want to dance again. She quit ballet at the ripe age of 18.
‘How was that?’ I asked, on the edge of my seat. ‘Best time of my life,’ Gina replied, laconically. She became, in her words, ‘normal’, not living in the ‘ballet bubble.’ She went clubbing and to bars, lived on pizza and worked for big member clubs in the heart of London. She went to visit her sister in Hong Kong. She had fun.
But Gina never lost her love of performing, so that when she saw an advert for musical theatre in the West End, she applied and her career really started.
My first role was in The King and I, with Elaine Paige; I was terrified as I’d never had to sing. I was so nervous at the audition, but it was that new combination of singing, acting and dancing that made me feel that this was a totally different world from the ballet. I was breaking out.
She got the part, of course. This is Gina. And she went from one lordly show to another, The Lion King. The dreaded singing now had to be done in Zulu, along with puppetry. ‘I went from pointe shoes to dancing as a hyena in Doc Martin Boots’, Gina laughed. ‘I benefitted so much from musical theatre, in ways I could not have done just from ballet. I learnt how to project to an audience in a different way. I got confident of being able to do things a little differently. And having had that experience, that difference, that fun, I could look at ballet rationally. I’d had the best ballet education in the world and I wanted to use it before it was too late. I gave myself two weeks to see if I could make an audition, because I knew they usually take you at 17. I hadn’t had pointe shoes on for 5 years. I had nothing to lose.’
Gina did a morning’s audition at the English National Ballet, then went on to do both a matinée and evening performance of The Lion King on the same day. Incredibly, her audition was a huge success and ballet came back into her life and she hasn’t looked back since. ‘I gained so much from my experiences,’ she recollected to me. ‘And I’d had such good ballet grounding. My training had been second to none; those skills and that mind-set don’t leave you, but you have to want to use them.’ Gina remained with the English National Ballet for 2 years. She had a Swedish boyfriend and so, like many of us, came to Stockholm for love. What were her first impressions? ‘Cold!’ She laughs. ‘Same as everybody: cold and dark. It was minus 25 when I got here; the first thing I had to do was buy extra socks. But it was also so clean, so safe, such a high standard of living. We are so spoilt here and it’s easy to take all of it for granted.’
At 28, Gina was promoted to first soloist and got a lifetime contract at Kungliga Operan; she had, however, parted ways with the old boyfriend and fallen in love with Jacy’s father, ‘the whirlwind love of my life’. They were engaged and thought to get pregnant in a few years, but Jacy had other ideas. On her wedding day, she was five months pregnant and ravishing. Kungliga Operan was very good to Gina; they made special ballerina-wear for her and she was dancing for the first 3 months of her pregnancy. ‘There’s not many places in the world where I could have had a career as a ballerina and have a family; people usually have to sacrifice something. But it was hard, because for the first time in my life, I felt that I had no control over my body. I gained 25 kilograms by the end of my pregnancy. But pregnancy also opened up a new world to me – the expat mums’ world.’
This is where I came in. Expats generally have limited family help, so we dealt with the panic of being new mums, the endless nappy-changing and the sleepless nights together and became all the closer as a result. On top of this, things did not work out with Gina’s husband so she became a single mum almost from the get-go. ‘That was the hardest time of my life,’ Gina admitted to me. ‘Especially when Jacy was a baby. I was so glad to have my mummy friends around me, whilst I was in a country that was not my own. I was also so grateful to have him; the love you have for your child is just so much bigger than yourself. You can’t sit around and mope all day when you have a child; there’s too much work to be done and too much fun to be had with them. ’
And how about that weight? ‘Jacy was a big baby,’ Gina smiled. ‘And I was breastfeeding round-the-clock, so that helped. But the truth is that ballet is my passion; I was happy to get back into training. And then, I wasn’t financially independent; I had to work. I went back the day after his first birthday.’ And again, how fortunate to be in Sweden, where there is not only fantastic subsidised daycare, but that it is available around the clock, if need be. As a single mum, Gina can still go out and do a premiere in the evening, knowing that her child will be looked after. This doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it is doable. Toddlers are toddlers, with all their energy, feistiness and fun. And glamour is difficult to maintain when, in an act of love, a 3 year old gives you a big hug after eating a bowl of pasta with tomato sauce. Gina illustrated the point so well with her final story to me recently.
I was playing Odette and Odile in Swan Lake, the archetypal ballet, the one that every little girl wants to be in, to 2000 people in Stockholm. It was my biggest role to date and it was an enormous success. After three exhilarating acts, we had a one-minute curtain call and I couldn’t count how many flowers. I was the lady of the moment. An hour later, I was trudging the pram through the snow back from Jacy’s nursery. There was no-one to help me, it was freezing and the flowers kept falling out of the pram; I couldn’t carry them and push the stroller. It was so funny, the contrast. Children are brilliant in that they keep you humble; they bring you back to earth.
And I’m so very grateful that Gina is not only on this earth, but here in Stockholm, leaving behind a trail of flowers through our lives, as she performs.
If you liked this article, you may also like reading about our other ‘Extraordinary Expats‘. It’s always great to read about people doing well in Stockholm!
Article: Farrah Gillani
Photo Credits: Hanna Teleman, Hans Nilsson and Alexander Kenney of Kungliga Operan
All photos with kind permission from the Royal Swedish Ballet