JONAH HOOPER TOWERS over his partner, ballerina Peng-Yu Chen, as they walk onto the rehearsal floor to go through the Snow Queen portion of Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker on a crisp fall afternoon in early November.
The diminutive Chen, who barely hits the five-foot-tall mark, is dressed in a blue stretch top with black tights and a white tutu. Her dark hair is twisted into a dancer’s bun at the top of her head. A tiny pendant of a cross hangs down her spine, twisted around from exertion.
She and Hooper take their positions, and they rehearse one last bit before the famed Tchaikovsky score begins to play over the room’s sound system. He effortlessly lifts her until Chen’s entire body is perched on the palm of his right hand. They hold the position for a moment, then Chen giggles as he lets her down. She follows that with a series of casually masterful pirouettes en pointe across the dance floor.
“Okay,” says Atlanta Ballet artistic director John McFall, who also is the choreographer of this version of The Nutcracker, “let’s start where the snowmobile comes out.”
Chen and Hooper walk over to the far corner of the expansive room and then, as McFall switches on the music of the “Waltz of the Snowflakes,” the two dancers execute a series of leaps, lifts and spins. They separate, go to opposite sides of the room, then meet again in the middle. Hooper lifts Chen, and she falls into the crook of his elbow. By the end of the routine, they are breathless from exertion. When the other dancers in the room applaud their effort, they smile self-consciously in acknowledgement.
“You guys are ready,” McFall declares. “There’s not much to discuss because it’s so nice.”
For Chen, this year’s Nutcracker holds special significance — exactly two years ago she was injured mid-performance as she danced the marquee role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. She hobbled off stage, suddenly faced with the harrowing prospect she might never return.
SINCE THE 1950s, The Nutcracker has been a staple of American ballet companies. The tradition started in 1955 with a New York City Ballet presentation that was choreographed by the father of modern American ballet, George Balanchine, and it has become a staple for ballet companies across the country.
It made its Atlanta Ballet debut — the second act alone — in April (go figure) 1959 and took its place as a holiday staple three years later. Atlanta Ballet began production of McFall’s version in 1995.
For most ballet companies, the December run of the Nutcracker brings in the bulk of the income to support the rest of season, and Atlanta Ballet is no different; the annual production makes up a full 60 percent of the ballet’s annual ticket sales. This year’s run at the Fox Theatre begins tonight and goes through December 28.
The Nutcracker has also served as an important marker of Chen’s career. Now in her eighth season with Atlanta Ballet, Chen, 33, is affectionately known as “Pong” to her fellow dancers. It is a playful take on table tennis and the pronunciation of her first name — Peng is pronounced “ping” as in “ping-pong,” and it was enough for a nickname to take root.
A native of Taiwan, she started dancing in the third grade at the age of 10, but she concentrated on gymnastics, Chinese dance and Chinese folk dance. In her first public performance, she was on stage so briefly that her mother didn’t have enough time to take a picture. But she impressed her teachers enough that they suggested she go to a dance school after class.
“I started to get real intense, dancing every day,” she says, sitting at a small conference table during her lunch break from Nutcracker rehearsals. “I was in a national Chinese dance competition and won two years in a row. That’s when my parents decided that maybe I had some talent. I was very determined. I was real frustrated because everybody else started out way before I did. I had to play catch-up for a while. I never stopped dancing, even in the summer. I never stopped dancing until the injury.”
In high school, Chen attended a Hong Kong festival where a dance troupe from State University of New York/Purchase performed. She was so entranced that she applied to the school even though it meant leaving her home country. The only problem was she received a scholarship tied to The Nutcracker that required her to be in the school’s production of the Christmas classic. She’d not only never performed The Nutcracker, she didn’t even own a pair of pointe shoes because she’d also never danced ballet.
Chen proved a quick study. “I was Asian and probably looked 15 years old, so they assigned me to do Clara, which is a kid’s part,” she says. “My school hired the principals from the New York City Ballet to do the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier. I’d sit on stage and watch them and it was such a treat. When you’re in Taiwan you can only see them in videos, and now you’re sharing the stage. It was a really unforgettable experience.”
After graduation, Chen joined her first professional company, filling in for a dancer who went down with an ACL injury. She then joined the American Repertory Ballet in New Jersey. Three years later, Chen was named in Dance Magazine’s annual list of “25 to Watch.” She also worked that year with Lauri Stallings, the gloATL (now simply glo) founder who was then resident choreographer at Atlanta Ballet and about to stage Big, Atlanta Ballet’s celebrated collaboration with OutKast’s Antwan “Big Boi” Patton. Stallings mentioned Chen to McFall, who eventually invited her to come to Atlanta.
Chen, however, was more focused on finding a troupe that specialized in modern dance. “I checked out the website, and it was all classical,” she says. “So I wasn’t really sure. I didn’t want to disappoint them. But I came down and everyone was like a family. I saw them do some contemporary stuff and it was amazing. So I took the offer and moved here in 2007.”
THE CLASSICAL SIDE of Atlanta Ballet was a challenge for Chen. Once again, she was playing catch-up and working with a company that demands dancers who are schooled in both traditional and modern styles. Once again, she found herself making her debut in The Nutcracker, this time as the Sugar Plum Fairy, a part that requires exacting ballet technique. “They took time to work with me,” she says. “I learned a lot and started to appreciate classical ballet. I do love it, it’s just a different heart.”
In the December 2012 edition, Chen was again cast as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Early in the run, she had 30 friends and family in the audience to watch her performance. Chen and her partner, Alexandre Barros, were dancing a duet and during the coda, she launched a leap with her left leg. It was one of those moments where time slows down. “It felt like something was in my way and I kicked it,” she says. “It felt like I knocked something over and my knee went the other way. I was thinking Alex was in my way and I’d kicked him, but I looked and there was nobody there.”
She landed on her right leg and, for a second, everything seemed fine. Then she turned and immediately thought something is wrong. When she tried to pick up her left knee, she instinctively realized there was a significant injury.
Chen hobbled off stage. Her failure to return for the bows was the only clue the audience had that something was amiss. After the show — while Chen was in the green room, crying and waiting for an ambulance — her friends and family had unknowingly gathered backstage to congratulate her. Her boyfriend at the time, now her fiancé, told her, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.”
At first she thought she must have dislocated her knee; after she cooled down backstage, it actually began to feel better. An MRI revealed a harsher truth: Peng had torn her ACL, the ligament that stabilizes the knee. Her career was now in jeopardy.
“I was 31 and it’s not a good time to be hurt, at that age,” she says. “You start thinking about what’s next.”
THE ANTERIOR CRUCIATE LIGAMENT runs through the middle of the knee just behind the kneecap, in an X pattern with the posterior cruciate ligament. Together, they control the back and forth motion of the knee. ACL tears are common in professional sports, particularly football, because they can be caused by sudden stops, sudden changes in direction, awkward landings and direct hits.
For a dancer who depends on sudden stops and changes in direction, it is a devastating injury. Those who are able to come back must endure rehab work that is grueling and painful, and some never return to the same physical agility they once had. On top of that, her surgeon discovered a torn meniscus cartilage in the same knee during the procedure to repair the ACL.
A return to the dance floor, however, was a foregone conclusion in Chen’s mind. “I told myself: I’m going to have the surgery and then I’m going to come back,” she says. “I never doubted. Not once. That was never a question for me. I was not going to end like that.”
Chen began her physical therapy even before her surgery. “You lose muscle,” she says. “You dance for 20 years and you have all this muscle. And it was gone within a week.”
Her mother and father and brother all took time off and arrived in Atlanta from Taiwan a week before the surgery; her mom stayed for two months to see her through the first stages of physical therapy.
Chen describes the rehab as “intense.” The first time she got on a stationary bike postsurgery, she couldn’t even turn the wheel one rotation. She essentially had to relearn how to walk, and then how to dance.
She returned to the ballet’s rehearsal studios in September 2013, 10 months after the injury, and began the long road back.
By March, Chen was scheduled to make her return in “the authors,” a piece choreographed by fellow Atlanta Ballet dancer Tara Lee. Shortly before the performance, Chen learned that her mother had died in Taiwan from injuries sustained in an automobile accident. “Compared to that,” Chen says, “my injury was nothing, you know?”
THERE ARE MORE PROFICIENT technicians at Atlanta Ballet, but there is no dancer in the troupe more graceful than Chen. Watching her is like watching a rippling stream — she doesn’t seem to step so much as she seems to flow.
Before her injury, she appeared to be hitting a groove with the ballet. She had landed more prominent roles — including major parts that were critically lauded in the 2012 stagings of Jorge Elo’s “1st Flash” and Helen Pickett’s “Prayer of Touch.” She also choreographed a piece called “Whispers” for Wabi Sabi — the ballet’s experimental summer troupe. “Whispers” was picked by ArtsATL as one of the dance highlights of 2012 and praised as a “richly varied pas de deux . . . guided by an innate sensitivity.”
The injury may have brought her career to a temporary halt; her mother’s death, and the deep well of grief that marks the loss of a parent, made her question whether she wanted to dance at all.
“I’d lost something that was most valuable, my rock,” she says quietly. “I came back a little confused because I wanted to stay home. I didn’t know what dance would mean to me from now on; it didn’t seem that important anymore.’
Chen soldiered on and made her official comeback last May in Elo’s “1st Flash” on the MAYhem program. In many ways it was a perfect piece for her: she was already familiar with the role because she’d performed it two years earlier, and it was one of the favorite works of her career. It also would be a firm test of where she stood in her comeback. “I was a little concerned when I was injured because I feel that one of my qualities is that I go for things, I don’t have fear; I just go for it.” Then she laughs. “I think that’s why I got injured, too.”
She worried whether that fearlessness would still be there when she returned to the stage. “But that part came back pretty quickly because that’s just who I am,” she says. “I wasn’t scared or worried. I just couldn’t believe that I was back on stage. Dancing with all my friends was actually what I missed the most.”
The beauty of Chen’s performance in May was that she danced like she’d never been injured. She moved with abandon and authority. She held herself together until the moment after she took her bows. As the curtain fell, she burst into tears. “Doing that show brought me comfort and peace that I didn’t think I could find,” she says. “I would’ve gone crazy if I had no dance.”
It was fitting that Chen and Nadia Mara, her best friend, were the two female leads in “1st Flash.” She’s developed a deep friendship with Mara, who lost her own mother two years ago. Like Mara, Chen was very close to her mother — she’d been with her through Chen’s entire dance career, from driving her to practice after school to long telephone conversations once she moved to the United States.
The loss is especially acute as Chen now plans her wedding; there’s much she wishes she could share with her mother. She says she has learned that dancing is her shelter from the storm. “Coming into the ballet world was such a beautiful accident; I never dreamed I could be a ballerina,” Chen says. “When you dance, you go to a special place. Sometimes that makes me feel more connected with my mom. It’s hard. One day at a time, that’s all I can do.”
(Peng-Yu Chen will dance in the “A” cast performances as the Spanish dancer in Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker and as one of the Meissen Dolls. In the “C” cast, she returns to the role of the Snow Queen. The ballet will use four different casts in this year’s production.)