Kara Chan

Kara Chan, a fourth-year dancer in Juilliard’s Dance Division, has illuminated the stage of many a Juilliard dance performance I have attended. In the course of our interview, she exuded a wisdom and poise far beyond her years. Her generosity of spirit graces the questions below.

4 year old ballerinaI’ve been fortunate to see you perform in many Juilliard dance performances over the years. How did you come to study dance?
Well, I was always one of those kids that would turn on the music on the stereo and dance and skip around the couch – there are so many recordings of me just doing my own thing. I was always an active child so that’s why my parents decided “Oh, she loves dance. Let’s put her in dance classes.” So I started recreationally at the age of 5. I relocated to a pre-professional training studio at age 10. I later went to high school that had a half day program, so it allowed me to do my academics which was a very important part of my life and do my training in the afternoons. It fulfilled so much for me and there was never a question of not dancing after high school. Dance has always been a really important part of my life.

IMG_1356Tell us about your native Vancouver.
I’m from North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Vancouver is very beautiful. It’s very green and it’s just a beautiful place with lots of mountains and trees and nature. It rains a lot which helps with the beauty of Vancouver, but I love it. I miss that aspect of it while being here. It’s a place where you can disconnect into the peace of nature. There is hiking and during the winter, all winter sports: skiing, snowshoeing, cross country (which I really love doing).

Who inspires you?
In general, I find inspiration from people who really have a drive and a passion for what they’re doing. It’s their outlook on life, their optimism, and making the most of it, for sure. Being surrounded by so many wonderful human beings as well as artists, I definitely can say that I’ve been inspired every day. It is so wonderful to be in an environment of people that want to be pursuing their art form and are wonderful human beings as well. I think the arts bring people together. I admire people that share the same work ethic and anyone who brings the best out of you; any mentor or person who sees the best in you and believes in your potential to grow and to continue evolving and learning.

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Is there any one person that has been especially mentoring of you at Juilliard?
Charla Genn, who teaches ballet class at Juilliard. She embodies all of these things I just mentioned. She’s very demanding of course, but it’s all a part of wanting the best from you and she’s so generous, so caring, and really wanting to invest in you. She sees everyone as a unique individual and makes them feel special – I think that’s a really special quality to have.

What other endeavors do you feel passionately about?
Being at Juilliard so many of my memorable experiences have been outside the dance studio. Participating in Educational Outreach, doing Gluck, as well as teaching with the CLIMB fellowship and Arts Enrichment. I think it’s really important to develop and hone the skills as a teaching and performing artist as well as focusing on the pursuit of your career, because it informs what you do so much by being in the front of the studio. I really love teaching and sharing what I know with the New York community. I also really love Yoga. When I go back home for spring or winter break, it gives me a sense of groundedness, balance, and the ability to tap into my inner strength.

Juilliard School of the Arts

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What do you think is the main challenge of being an international student?
Definitely the costs. Traveling home to here, and finding scholarship opportunities, which ties together. As a graduating student I’m starting to deal with visa things. Dance companies sometimes specify in their auditions that they only can look for dancers who either are U.S. citizens or hold a valid green card, so that ultimately cuts you off from being seen. This limits the options as an international dancer looking for work. I’ve come to realize that if a company is interested in you they have to take on that financial burden of your visa if they want to have you be a part of their collective. So that’s another challenge that is sort of new that I’ve discovered.

IMG_0245What was your transition like to the U.S.?
Before coming to Juilliard, I never spent a long period of time away from home, so the transition going into a big city was very exciting for me. I really loved being independent and finding what that was like to live. I actually wasn’t home sick my first year at all. I think it’s just the nature of being here and finding a community of people where you feel like you built a family. I do love the fast pace of New York City because I’m a very quick walker, but I think that has come from being in the city too. Coming to the U.S. I’ve definitely developed a broader perspective and an open mind. The diversity that exists in this city is so wonderful and so unique, so I think that’s special.

What are the differences you’ve noticed between Canada and the U.S.?
The holidays are much more commercialized and blown up here [in the U.S.]. Definitely, we know the U.S. as in larger portion sizing, so that was interesting. Canadians are often teased for being too polite, saying “sorry” when it’s not necessary. Oh, and I apparently have a Canadian accent in pronouncing words like “bag,” “bagel,” and “sorry.”

IMG_1244What aspect of Canada do you miss the most?
I love seeing the mountains, fresh clean air, and fresh water. Vancouver has the best water, I think. And being in nature. Central Park is beautiful, however, it’s amidst the tall buildings. Vancouver offers the sites, the nature, the greenery, the mountains and all the things you can do in terms of being outdoors – hiking, taking walks, etc.

What is the most common misconception of Canada?
I get this a lot: “Oh, you’re from Canada. It must be so cold”, or “Oh, you’re used to it here” as though you shouldn’t even be complaining it’s cold. It depends on where – of course if you’re living more back east like in Montreal and Toronto it can get cold in the winters. However, Vancouver is very pleasant – it’s a rain forest. Everyone thinks if you’re from Canada, you are used to wearing a parka all year round. That’s not the case and people think that you’re really talky and I’m not. What else? The temperature thing, Fahrenheit to Celsius – that was an adjustment. I haven’t converted to knowing what Fahrenheit is in relation to Celsius. I still look at my phone.

TheSchoolAtJacobsPillow_ContemporaryProgram_2014JamieKraus_69

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In reflecting on your experience in the US, what are the first three words that come to mind?
Opportunity. Diversity. Learning.

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Duanduan Hao

Duanduan Hao, a first-year Masters pianist in Juilliard’s Music Division, brought a wealth of knowledge of his native Chinese and French culture to our conversation. In the course of our meeting, I noticed the French mannerisms and nuances so telling of his time spent in Paris. His code switching was between French and English, as with using the French word “Parisien” for the English “Parisian.” Duanduan’s unique cultural mix colors the questions below.

Duanduan Hao 1How did you come to play the piano?
In 1990s China it was a trend for children living in major cities to learn a special skill at school, so some learned an instrument of music like me, others sports, theatre, painting or sculpture. When I was two, I had a neighbor ten years older than me who was learning the piano. My parents found that I always got anxious when I heard the neighbor playing wrong notes! That’s the moment they discovered I was sensitive to piano, so they brought me one and I began to learn to play. That’s basically how my relationship with piano began.

Tell us about your native China.
I was born in the North and moved to Shanghai when I was eleven, so it’s a kind of second native city for me. Shanghai has lots of people, cars, skyscrapers, opportunities, and a very advanced education system. The most amazing feature of the city is that it has a great mixture of Eastern and Western cultures. Shanghai was occupied by Western countries like Germany, France, and England, that constructed parts of the city that still remain today. The architecture beside the river on the Western side is similar to London, while the Conservatory of Shanghai area was occupied by the French so we can see small houses in the French style, with lovely rooftops and colors. Even the trees were planted by French people. The local people in Shanghai are traditional in their way of living and even speaking because they kept their dialect and don’t really speak Mandarin between themselves. This shows the conservative way of the city, so it’s a great mixture of the open-minded and also the traditional.

Duanduan Hao 3You lived in Paris for ten years, starting at age fifteen. What brought you to Paris?
My parents had this plan already when I was little because they always wanted me to get to know different environments and new things – just to open my mind about the world. Also, because I was learning piano, which is really a Western instrument, it was logical for them to send me to the center of Western Europe, Paris. They sent me there to get directly in touch with the source of the culture.

You completed your undergraduate degree at the Sorbonne. Tell us about that.
My concentration was in art history and musicology. It was the most important period of my life; it changed a lot of my opinions of Occidental culture and had a great impact on my piano interpretation. The Sorbonne, founded in 1257, is one of the most ancient universities in the world. It is the second oldest university besides the one in Bologna. It carries a great heritage of the history of Western Europe. The Latin section in Paris is amazing for study and for culture. It is amazing to think that in the small cafes you pass by, there were once people like Hugo and Balzac drinking coffee and writing. You can also see the Notre Dame de Paris through the windows of the classrooms.

Now, the age-old question: New York or Paris?
For living, definitely Paris. For enriching experiences and developing a career, New York. It’s more adaptable. And I think New York is a place for young people to stay because it is so dynamic. Paris can sometimes get a little too quiet and a little too slow.

Duanduan Hao 4What do you think is the main challenge of being an international student?
The adaptation. We have to adjust ourselves as soon as possible to a new environment and have the courage to present ourselves to the new world, to meet new people, new friends. It seems simple, but it is not an easy thing to do when we first get to a new place and we don’t know anyone. This did not happen when I moved to the U.S. because I had many friends who were living, studying and working here. It happened when I was in France. I didn’t speak the language yet, was barely able to pronounce a few words, and didn’t have anyone I knew. It was really a difficult moment. I had to have an open mind to receive and absorb every moment in these new surroundings.

What aspect of U.S. culture most surprised you?
The open-minded spirit, especially of people that live in New York, to the outside world. I talked with a few newcomers, and we all find that we can easily become a New Yorker once we’ve settled in the city. This doesn’t happen in other cities and more closed societies. It was after five or six years in Paris that I could finally consider myself a “Parisien.” There, you have to just make an effort to go into that society, to make yourself a place. But here, you already have a place. They just receive you as who you are, as a member of the city.

What aspect of your home country do you miss the most?
The food! Also, we feel a security when we stay in our country, like a tree with deep roots. It’s really stable and feels comfortable. But here, we’re like newly planted trees so we have to develop our own roots by ourselves. This is the most exciting part about it – adventure. I’m enjoying this moment of developing a new relationship with the new world.

Duanduan Hao 2What do you think is the most common misconception of China?
The most frequently asked question when I was in France and Europe was, “Do you have lots of trouble getting approved to come to Europe to study music and art?” This proves that their knowledge of China still remains in the 70s. They don’t know that the society has evolved and become so different. It is not a sealed and closed society with no contact with the outside world anymore. I wish to encourage people to know the new China, and welcome them to visit themselves if they are interested in what is going on in my country.

How have you experienced culture shock outside of China?
I think in the opposite way of thinking. In China, we have this tradition to think our ancestors are always right, and did greater things than us. If we look at Meditation One of Descartes, the way of thinking is to delve into what is already there and prove whether it is correct or not instead of believing what the ancestors said. This is radically different from how we normally think in China. There’s also a difference of religion, in terms of notions about God. In China we don’t talk about this in most families, but here, sometimes, we have to get in touch with and discuss elements of the Bible. In China the Bible is most commonly perceived as a romance or a legendary story. I have friends from France who study the Bible the same way they study laws, so that’s completely different.

In reflecting on your experience in the U.S., what are the first three words that come to mind?
I loved it!

Correction: April 3, 2015

An earlier version of this post misstated the location of the oldest university in the world. It is in Bologna, not Polonia.

Hannes Otto

I was thrilled to feature Hannes in our very first interview. As a third year actor in Juilliard’s Drama Division, Hannes graces these questions with his unmistakable charm, wit, and unique personal story.

Hannes 3Tell us about your hometown.
I was born in Pretoria, the Capital of South Africa, although I culturally consider myself from Cape Town. Cape Town must be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It’s at the southernmost tip of Africa with a strong European influence in terms of the vibrant art, theatre and fashion industries. The city is on one side surrounded by the spectacular Table Mountain, with the Atlantic Ocean on another side and a massive stretch of wine lands on the other. This, in my opinion, makes for a pretty spectacular vista all around.

Why did you choose drama?
I knew I wanted to be an actor when I saw The Sound of Music when I was 6 years old and fell in love with the character of Leisl. After two days of being ‘love sick’ and refusing to eat, my grandmother, trying to help, called up the producer of the show, who she happened to know and organized for me to meet the actress who played Leisl for tea- hoping that this would cure my condition. When finally meeting her, I was so overwhelmed by her presence and beauty that I wet my pants. That’s when I knew… I want to have what she has. The ability to change peoples lives (and make them wet their pants).

Hannes Headshot

Photo: Gregory Costanzo
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Who inspires you?
I have so many idols and influences and inspirations. My dad is a huge influence in my life. His determination is unapologetic. My mother’s quiet understanding and interest in the human psyche and in classical music has influenced greatly the way I look at art. Nelson Mandela inspires me to forgive and seek forgiveness. Charlize Theron inspires me to become the first great South African male in the American film industry. Ed Norton, Michael Fassbender, Joaquin Phoenix, Christoph Waltz, Niell Blomkamp, Die Antwoord, Alexander McQueen, Elon Musk, David Fincher, Pedro Almodovar, Malcolm Gladwell… The list is long.

What other endeavors do you feel passionately about?
I’m an avid marathon runner. I ran the NYC Marathon in 2014. My advice to anyone thinking of doing it would be to wear warm clothes even if you think you won’t need it. I also have a strong interest in architecture and fashion.

What languages do you speak?
My mother tongue is Afrikaans. It’s the youngest language in the world and is derived from Dutch, German and western African languages.

Describe your transition to U.S. culture.
Moving to New York was just as difficult as it was thrilling. I think it’s important to be actively involved in your community. It’s the easiest and quickest way to create community for yourself.

What aspect of U.S. culture most surprised you?
How polite and politically correct everyone is. Us Africans are more direct and to the point.

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What are the challenges of being an international student?
The costs.

What aspect of your home country do you miss the most?
The sense of humor.

How were you made to feel welcome at Juilliard?
I was struck by how my class and department has fully embraced me and my culture from the beginning. They were excited and interested in my differences and what we could learn from each other.

Hannes 2In thinking about your experience in the U.S., what are the first three words that come to mind?
Work. Play. Work.

What is the most common misconception of your home country?
That everyone in Africa is black. 😜

What are the main differences between your home culture and U.S. culture?
Bureaucracy, size, politics.