When the Chinese government told Li Yaming he was going to Canada in 1986, he packed his thick down jacket. A graduate of the Beijing Dance Academy and dancer with the Central Ballet of China, Yaming didn’t know anything about this country. He arrived in Vancouver (didn’t need that jacket) as a guest artist with the Goh Ballet, where local girl Andrea Allen was a member of the student company.
Soon they’d be together in a pas de deux that would take them across the world as dancers and teachers. With Theatre Ballet of Canada, Ottawa Ballet, and other companies, the two performed with stars like Nureyev and Baryshnikov, Lynn Seymour, and Karen Kain. But ballet careers tend to be short. With the clock ticking on theirs, Yaming and Allen decided to open a school back in Vancouver.
They founded Pacific DanceArts in 1999 and its off shoot, Coastal City Ballet, in 2011. Allen’s architect father helped them turn a print shop o Boundary Road into purposebuilt classrooms and studios. Scotiabank Dance Centre’s floors, they proudly note, are modeled on theirs.
Pacific DanceArts teaches ballet, jazz, and contemporary to students at all levels. At the heart of the school are two intensive programs: half-days for high school teens, plus the fulltime classes, rehearsals, and six-performance season of Coastal City Ballet. “We wanted to provide quality training,” Allen explains, “and more than just yearly recitals and competitions. We wanted a company feel like we had ourselves—a professional feel. We measure our success by how many students get into professional companies.” (“We’re financially not very smart,” Yaming jokes about encouraging students to leave Coastal City to pursue their careers.) Their grads have danced with the Atlanta Ballet, Houston Ballet, Royal Winnipeg, New York Theater Ballet, Staatsoper Berlin, Ballet BC, and more.
Coastal City’s repertoire features new versions of classic story ballets with original choreography: Hansel and Gretel, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Coppelia, and 2015’s Cinderella. “We’re trying to hit a younger audience with the fun side of ballet,” says Allen, “the magical stuff. And once they come, they seem to come back.”
Written by Jerry Wasserman. Paintings by Jeremy Okai Davis