A spectacular rise
Rui Huang was born in Shenzhen, across the river from Hong Kong, and from age ten was immersed in rigorous Vaganova training, a ballet instruction known for producing limber and expressive dancers but also for unforgiving methods, including teachers who used bruising rulers.
“I always wanted to come to America,” Huang says. At 18 she did, to compete in New York’s Youth America Grand Prix ballet competition. “I didn’t know anyone, and I couldn’t say anything. I looked around at the blond hair and blue eyes and didn’t think I could handle it.” But she came in third and received a scholarship to the Washington School of Ballet. The school’s artistic director, Septime Webre, invited her to join the junior Studio Company, typically a two-year program. A year later she became an apprentice, a year after that a full-fledged company member—an almost unprecedented rise.
“Rui is a spectacular talent,” says Webre. “Really beautiful facility—gorgeous legs and feet, beautiful classical training—and also a natural contemporary mover. She has a gorgeous sensuality about her.”
This season, Huang dances Kitri in Webre’s staging of the classic Don Quixote. She tested the role over the summer with Kitri’s solo, which won her a bronze medal at the World Ballet Competition in Orlando.
“Kitri is a strong character,” says Huang, overjoyed to tackle her first principal role in a full-length classical ballet. “I stand in front of the mirror, pose, and see if I can look like her. If I have that confidence, I think it will be just fine.”
Huang also relishes contemporary roles such as the one she’ll dance in Webre’s world premiere of The Great Gatsby in February. “I’m always looking for something new,” Huang says. “I like some really difficult things that the first time you can’t do.”
Rui Huang performs in Don Quixote October 14 through 18 and in The Great Gatsby February 24 through 28 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater.
An audition to remember
VaShawn McIlwain has been singing professionally for eight years, but his upcoming role as Joe in Signature Theatre’s Show Boat in November marks a major debut. “At first it was all opera, all day, every day,” says the 28-year-old DC native who earned a master’s in music, with a focus on opera, from the University of Maryland. “Now I’m dabbling in musical theater.”
At his Show Boat audition, McIlwain realized the difference between the art forms. In a typical opera audition, the casting people “are blank-faced, unblinking.” At the Signature tryout, he says, “the wall between the director and the artist was torn down.” That freed him to take an unusual approach with the big number, “Ol’ Man River.” “Many singers who perform it focus on the technical aspects, and it’s a very beautiful song that way,” McIlwain says. “But I try to bring something personal to it, to connect with the character.”
It worked. As he finished the song, “everybody’s faces just lit up,” he says, and they asked him to sing another song, then another. Signature artistic director Eric Schaeffer recalls the audition as “one of those amazing experiences where literally the hair on my arms stood on end. It was spellbinding.”
Show Boat could propel McIlwain’s already-bustling career to a new level. Since graduating from DC’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts, he’s made a living appearing in operas staged by the Washington National Opera, Maryland Opera Studio, and Aspen Opera Theater Center. He was a regional finalist for the Metropolitan Opera’s national auditions in 2007. In April, he sang for Michelle Obama at a “Welcome to Washington” program in Sidney Harman Hall. Yet McIlwain acknowledges that he has further to go: “I’m still a baby at this.”
He says his goal at every performance is to touch at least one listener. But his ultimate ambition? “I want to hear ‘bravo!’ I want to hear the cheers and see a standing ovation. Because then I know it’s not just one person I’ve touched; it’s all of them.”
Show Boat is at Arlington’s Signature Theater November 10 through January 17.
A maestro with guts
In the early 1980s, Christopher Zimmerman was an assistant with the Toronto Symphony when the renowned Czech conductor Václav Neumann came to town. “I was just blown away,” Zimmerman says of the impression Neumann made at the podium. “I knew that somehow I had to work with this guy. I walked right up to him and said that I was the official assistant conductor of the Toronto Symphony—which I wasn’t. ‘Maestro,’ I said, ‘I would love to go to Europe and work with you in any way possible.’ ”
“If you can get a government grant to come to Prague,” Neumann responded, “we can work together.”
That was no easy task in the days of the Iron Curtain, yet in 1984 Zimmerman secured permission and traveled abroad to work as Neumann’s assistant at the Czech Philharmonic. There Zimmerman immersed himself in one of the richest Old World musical cultures, attending rehearsals, taking private lessons from Neumann, and learning the Czech classics.
This fall Zimmerman begins a three-year tenure with the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra. And though the British-born conductor may have Edward Elgar and Benjamin Britten in his blood, audiences will encounter a musician with a catholic palette, as facile with Haydn and Mozart as with contemporary composers. The season’s first performance hints at ambitious programs to come, with music by Elgar and Bernstein as well as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.
Zimmerman arrives at a time when many American orchestras face financial crises, aging audiences, and declining subscriptions. He hopes to make symphonic music more relevant to young audiences through community outreach. “We need to penetrate the huge school system that exists in Fairfax County,” he says, “and do more than simply go into a school, play a concert, and leave.”
He talks about guest-conducting a school orchestra and inviting children to rehearsals geared especially to them: “We have to bring students into more visceral contact with the great works of symphonic music.”
Christopher Zimmerman conducts three of the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra’s remaining masterworks concerts this season at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts: November 21, January 23, and March 13.