In July, fifteen-year-old Michelle Khoo travelled to Europe for the first time to participate in the Wien Welt Wettbewerb competition. Khoo, who has trained since she was four years old, competed in ballet and contemporary, and she won significant prizes in both genres and secured a scholarship for a two-week intensive in Slovenia next summer. Khoo is already preparing for the Advanced II Royal Academy of Dance exam and hopes to become a professional ballet dancer. She says “I’m just really grateful that I got this opportunity. It’s not everyday that you get to go to a competition of this kind. All the teachers at the Goh Ballet have been really supportive and they really believed in me.” Attending a special secondary school program called SPARTS, allows her the flexibility she needs to be able to train four hours per day, plus rehearse for upcoming competitions and the Goh Ballet’s The Nutcracker. Before she left for Austria, we asked Michelle to keep a diary about her experiences to share with our younger readers. On behalf of The Dance Current, I would like to congratulate Miss Khoo on her international success and introduce her to the dance community as one of our rising stars.
Kate Morris, Editor
Day 1 — Sunday, July 20
My family and I arrived in Vienna today. It was already evening there, and the European buildings looked gorgeous in the warm glow of the setting sun. I also noted that there were tons of cyclists everywhere! A fan of cycling myself, I was fascinated by how ubiquitous cyclists are.
Since everything in Vienna closes around six, most of the shops were already closed. We decided to try to find our way to the MuTh theatre, where the first round of the competition was to take place. Unfortunately, we didn’t get very far when, out of the blue, torrential rain poured down on us, lightning flashed and thunder crashed. It was the wildest storm I have ever experienced. We had no choice but to make our way back to our hotel.
Day 2 — Monday, July 21
The competition sign-in is tomorrow, so today we got to know the area, and picked up groceries and other supplies we would need over the course of our week in Vienna. Along the way we visited St. Stephen’s Cathedral — one of the most important religious buildings in Vienna. It was incredibly ornate and magnificent, and I was awed by its towering height. I think I’m in love with Vienna!
Day 3 — Tuesday, July 22
We signed in at the ballet academy today. Once there, we were greeted by Zhang Yuwen, the secretary-general for the Wien Welt Wettbewerb competition. She was very helpful and kind. When we asked if there were any studios I could practise in, she gladly led me to an open one. However, it wasn’t long before I was joined by a troupe of competitors from China. Everyone is anxious to get in as much extra practice time as possible! We shared the studio, taking turns running our solos and practising by the side when it wasn’t our turn. I was nervous: this was my first encounter with dancers my age from other parts of the world. But eventually I calmed down and was able to practise with more confidence.
Two-and-a-half hours later, I decided to head back to the hotel. Once there, I massaged my hip flexors, which had felt tight all day. My hip flexors had bothered me substantially while I was practising, making it much harder to lift up my legs than usual. I needed them to heal before I competed.
In the evening, I attended the opening ceremony with my Mom. There were several performances and I was especially impressed by some of the older dancers’ elegant solos. I’m glad I attended!
Day 4 — Wednesday, July 23
I am not competing today. Instead, I took Vladimir Malakhov’s master class. It was a really good class and I felt very honoured to have had such an opportunity. His exercises were not overly complicated, but they still forced me to think.
After the class, Ms. Goh came to the ballet academy to rehearse with my classmates and I. We worked there for two and a half hours. I was very grateful she took the time to help us out in this rehearsal. Ms. Goh gave me many valuable pointers and helped iron out the most challenging parts of my variations. By the end of the rehearsal, I felt significantly less nervous for the competition tomorrow. I took down my corrections in a notebook, to help me remember everything later on.
Day 5 — Thursday, July 24
Today I compete in the contemporary category at the MuTh theatre. I started the day with a class at the ballet academy. The teacher was Boris Nebyla, one of the adjudicators. It was a fantastic class, and I enjoyed it so much!
After class, I went straight to the MuTh theatre to prepare for the first round of the contemporary category. We had a stage rehearsal first, which I was very nervous for. I did breathing exercises that my teacher, Alejandro, had taught me. They really helped me calm down.
After the rehearsal, I had almost six hours before the actual competition. Ms. Goh took me and Cierra, my schoolmate, to get some fresh air. After walking around for a bit, Ms. Goh treated us to lunch. The three of us had a wonderful time together. Then it was back to the theatre, where we did our hair and makeup before warming up.
Finally, it was time for the competition. Ms. Goh came backstage to wish Cierra and me good luck and to give us some final tips. As I waited backstage, I repeated my breathing exercises to stay calm. It’s easy to let my nerves take over when I am onstage. And I didn’t want that to happen. I wanted to stay focused while I was dancing.
Before I knew it, it was my turn. I remembered Ms. Goh’s advice, along with my other corrections from Alejandro Vargas and Monica Proenca. ‘Be creaturistic and mysterious,’ I reminded myself. ‘Don’t drop the character.’ My contemporary solo is long and very tiring. Near the end I could feel fatigue settling into my muscles, but I refused to give in. Only after I finished my solo and ran offstage did I relax and plop down onto the floor.
Day 6 — Friday, July 25
I found out this morning that I got into the finals for contemporary! I’m so excited and happy that I will be competing in the finals at the Volkstheater! But first, I have to compete in the ballet category tonight.
This morning, I started off with a warm-up class at the MuTh theatre. Gregor Hatala, the stage director/president, was teaching. I was impressed that we did almost a full class in only half an hour, given that classes are usually an hour and a half, I was very warm by the end!
After the class, it was time for the stage rehearsal. Thankfully, I was much less nervous today, since I had already danced onstage twice. But then I fell off the tip of my shoe when I was hopping on pointe. This was the first time that this had ever happened. I got so worried that I messed up on my ending pirouettes. As a result, I was very nervous for the real show, but Ms. Goh was very encouraging, and she helped me calm down by talking to me. I also headed back to the theatre extra early to get in some extra practice, after resting for a short while at my hotel.
Once back at the theatre, I chose a different pair of pointe shoes since I felt that the ones I had worn earlier were too soft. I practised my pirouettes and hops on pointe until I felt secure in all the difficult steps. Then I returned to my change room to finish off my hair and makeup.
In the competition, when I got to the most stressful parts of my variation, I just reminded myself to stay confident and have faith in myself. Just as in the contemporary performance, I needed to stay calm for everything to work out. Fortunately, I succeeded this time and I was elated that my pirouettes went well!
Day 7 — Saturday, July 26
Yesterday night, Ms. Goh sent my family an email notifying us that I also got into the finals for ballet! I’m so thrilled that I got into the finals for both contemporary and ballet! Furthermore, when my Mom and I arrived at the Volkstheater this morning, several people approached us to tell me that I received the highest score for the first round of ballet. I was ecstatic! It really boosted my confidence. However, I didn’t have time to dwell on the good news. I was very busy all day preparing to compete in the final round for both categories.
Like yesterday, I started off the day with another warm-up class with Gregor Hatala. After class, rehearsals were scheduled to start immediately, but we ended up waiting for an hour due to technical problems. The delay threw my planning for a loop. Firstly, it meant that I might not be able to rehearse both my routines and, secondly, I no longer had time to do my hair after rehearsals! Whenever I had a break, I rushed to do my hair and makeup as quickly as possible. Nonetheless, I still took forever to do my hair, since I am so inexperienced with French braiding. Even with my Mom’s help, we were still working on my hair over an hour later. Ms. Goh saw us struggling, so she aided us. Her assistance helped so much! I’m not sure if I would have finished my hair on time without Ms. Goh’s help. In the end, I managed to rehearse my Swanilda ballet variation in full but only my stage entrance for the contemporary piece. All this while preparing my hair and makeup!
When it was time for the competition, I put on my pointe shoes early so I could practise backstage. I made sure to remember Mr. Goh, the founder of Goh Ballet’s, advice: ‘You have to be charming. Swanilda is a sweet girl.’ His advice really helped me to enjoy the performance. For that short moment, I was whisked away to another world, and I was just an innocent girl, entertaining myself and enjoying the beautiful day.
After I finished my variation, an Austrian dancer approached me. He told me he really enjoyed my performance. He said, ‘You make me feel real emotion.’ Those words really stuck with me. I was moved that I could do such a thing. Evoking emotion in an audience is something special, and I was incredibly honoured that he felt this way about my dancing.
After the variation, it was back to reality. I had to hurry to change both my hair and my makeup for my contemporary piece. I ended up with less time to get ready for my contemporary solo than I had hoped. However, I still managed to prepare for the dance in time. This time, I wasn’t a sweet girl. Instead, I focused on being a mysterious alien creature. I was nervous about the spacing, since I hadn’t had the opportunity to run my contemporary solo on the bigger stage of the Volkstheater, but it turned out well! When it was my turn to dance, it was past 11pm. I was very tired, but I also felt exhilarated from the wonderful time onstage.
Day 8 — Sunday, July 27
Today was the awards ceremony! I was both incredibly nervous and incredibly excited. I was very anxious to hear the results. When the awards ceremony started, I was frozen to my seat because I was so anxious. Finally, they reached my ballet category.
‘And the first-place winner is… Michelle Wei Ling Khoo!’
My Mom looked over to me excitedly, but I was sort of in shock. My brain was still registering the news as I walked onstage to receive the award. It felt like a dream. As I thanked the judges and bowed to the audience, excitement began to bubble within me. This was amazing! I won!
As I continued to marvel at the news I had just received, they announced the results for the contemporary category. I hear the announcer saying, ‘Now for the Young Talent award.’ Once again my heart beat faster with nervousness and excitement as the announcer continued. ‘The winner of this prize is already on stage and she did a wonderful job — Michelle Wei Ling Khoo!’ I was so happy! I felt like I was floating; I was so filled with joy and ecstasy! My dream had come true! I had hoped to win first place in ballet and ‘Young Talent’ in contemporary and now it was happening in real life!
Next, they moved on to the scholarship winners. When I heard my name, I was jolted from my stupor. They announced that I had also won a full scholarship for a summer intensive and dance seminar in Europe!
This was all so amazing that a little voice in my head whispered, ‘Am I still sleeping? Is this too good to be true?’ Yet there was a stronger voice in my head, reassuring me, reminding me that this was reality. I felt elated; this was even more amazing than what I had dreamed of! Reality surpassed fantasy!
After the awards ceremony, some jury members, dancers and audience members approached me to congratulate me. Several people told me they enjoyed my dancing, and these kind comments meant so much to me. Dance is for the audience to enjoy, and I was so grateful that they enjoyed my performance.
Since I won gold for ballet, I performed in the gala. I chose to perform my Swanilda variation because I really love the dance. At first, I was very nervous for the gala. After winning three awards, I felt pressure to perform really well. But then I realized this gala performance wasn’t about proving myself — it was a celebration! It was an opportunity for the audience to have a good time watching the prize winners, and an opportunity for the dancers to perform and enjoy themselves one last time. This realization rid me of my nervousness, and when I stepped onstage to perform, I was so happy and excited. This performance was my thank you to the audience and the jury for their support.
After the gala, I attended a reception. I got the chance to talk to more dancers and jury members as I marveled at all the incredible things I had experienced over the course of the competition. I have met so many different dancers and learned so much! This week has been unforgettable! I am so grateful to the Goh Ballet for this amazing experience. I will be leaving Vienna tomorrow, but this experience will stay with me forever. I can’t wait to thank all my teachers in Vancouver and share this wonderful experience with them. Furthermore, I now have a summer intensive in Slovenia to look forward to — I can’t wait to meet more incredible dancers there and further my own technique!