As the 10 professional members of Northwest Dance Project fine-tune an ensemble piece in their brick-walled N Mississippi Avenue studio, the mood is one of relaxed focus. Ching Ching Wong is no exception. The five-foot-tall 25-year-old might be the company’s shortest dancer, but as any NWDP fan knows, there’s nothing diminutive about her. On stage, her precise movements explode with an electric grace, giving her a presence far beyond her stature.
As students begin to trickle in for her 5 o’clock, 9- to 12-year-old contemporary class, Wong’s look of stoic concentration cracks. For just a second, she widens her eyes and inflates her cheeks at one of the kids. “I call her the Child Whisperer,” NWDP artistic director Sarah Slipper says. “When a kid is shy or nervous, she has this way of pulling them in.”
“When you rehearse a lot, you just feel tired,” Wong says afterward. “But I get excited when my students get excited. Teaching fuels me.”
There will be a giant simulcast projection of opening night's show on the side of the Vibe building at 10th and Washington on opening night at dusk, along with a party at the Ace's Cleaners. It’s fuel she’ll need as NWDP rings in its 10th anniversary with Director’s Choice, a show featuring three of the company’s greatest hits. Over the past decade, NWDP has made an international name for itself as a rare ensemble that primarily stages new works—more than 160 to date—finding and collaborating with new choreographers each year. Consequently, the dancers have to move and work as a flexible but tight-knit team, in addition to balancing teaching and community outreach.
None of them better represent what it means to be a “company member” than the quick-learning, boundlessly personable, Manila-born Wong. She carries NWDP’s heaviest teaching schedule and will reprise a prominent role in British choreographer Ihsan Rustem’s State of Matter, which won the company the 2011 Sadler’s Wells Global Dance Contest.
“Plié, plié, chassé,” Wong calls out as she moves among the students, giving instructions and encouragement. Whether they’re naturally graceful or earnest but unbalanced, it’s clear from the children’s faces that they’re all enraptured with their teacher. The same can be said for her effect on her audiences.