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Where theater and psychology intersect. Blog, interviews & insight from a psychologist, about the shows YOU love.

Alex Wong – Athletic Grace

Alex Wong – Athletic Grace
Photo: Brian Jamie
Photo: Brian Jamie

Alex Wong is a tremendous dancer, singularly embodying beauty and power. The 30-year-old grew up in Canada, where his love of dance was evident from a young age. With the encouragement and support of his parents, he pursued his love for movement, taking classes from the age of 7. A natural, he studied and worked hard to learn his craft. He first gained notoriety in the dance world during a brief stint with the American Ballet Theatre in New York City and then joining and achieving the rank of soloist with the Miami City Ballet. Wong earned national recognition as an early favorite on the inspired Fox competition series So You Think You Can Dance in 2010 before sidelined by injury. Had it not been for this series of injuries, Wong might not have ended up on Broadway in the fan favorite, Newsies. I recently spoke with Wong about the power of dance, the popularity of Newsies, diversity in theater, and if we might see him again dancing in on a Broadway stage.

How did you get interested and involved in dance?

When I was 5 years old, possibly even younger, I would dance around a lot and choreograph my own pieces. I would bring my entire family into the bedroom and hand my dad a flashlight and say, “Spotlight me”. I honestly have no idea what I was doing! I think my parents saw dance talent in me and asked me if I wanted to dance. My answer was always “no, dancing is only for girls”. After they asked for a few years they decided to strike a deal with me. They said they would bring me to a local dance school show and if I still didn’t want to dance after that, they wouldn’t ask me anymore. I think I must have seen some guys dancing there because I wanted to start right away. That was when I was 7 and the rest is history!

What does it mean to you to be able to communicate without words through dance?

I think it’s compelling to be able to make people feel something without saying anything. I think that’s part of what I found so special about dancing.  It’s so athletic but at the same time you can tell a story.

How does audience response impact your performance?

Audience response has a HUGE impact on my performance. I think if you ask anyone who performs to live audiences, they will have the same answer. A lot of the times, especially in comedic pieces, I play heavily to the audience, especially if they are really responding. In other situations, an enthusiastic audience is almost like an extra battery pack; you want to give them even more.

What do you do for self-care to maintain your body?

I find that ballet keeps me in the best dancing shape. Then on top of ballet I will do weight training at the gym, mostly for upper body strength. Finally I enjoy doing HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) classes. I do it for some extra cross training but mostly because I just enjoy them!

What role has your family played in your career in terms of support?

My family has been incredibly supportive every step of the way right from the beginning. As I was saying before, it was even their idea for me to start dancing. I understand that is very atypical of Asian parents to do that. Luckily for me, my parents are very open- minded. They did require me to do well in school, which I always did. They taught me that, whatever my passion was, to give it my all.

You were in one of the iconic SYTYCD routines dancing with Twitch to “Get Outta Your Mind”. Did you know how explosive that piece would be to the audience while rehearsing it? Were you surprised by the response?

I actually had no idea what the audience response was going to be. A big part of me thought that the judges were going to say “Meh, we didn’t really feel it from you.” You honestly never know what they’re going to say and you always feel like you’re about to be eliminated. I didn’t know people actually liked it until the audience didn’t stop clapping and they were chanting “Alex! Alex! Alex!” It was quite the experience.

In the weeks following that tremendous routine, you snapped your Achille’s tendon. Because the surgery and ensuing recovery was going to take a year to complete, you had to withdraw from the competition. The next season, you were asked back to be an All-Star, but snapped your other Achille’s tendon, again forcing you from being on the show. How did you emotionally recover from the disappointment of those injuries?

I think I can confidently say that time was one of the most difficult in my life. I am generally a very happy and positive person but I was SO incredibly sad after I got injured the first time. It just seemed so unfair since I had given up so much to just be there and to have it taken away from me so quickly and completely out of my control. At the time, I kept on asking “Why me?”

One of the things that helped me get through was the quote “Everything happens for a reason and for the better.” I just had to trust that things were going to be OK in the end, great even. In some ways, the first injury was easier than the second one because I had so many fans supporting me and it was new. The second injury was emotionally extremely painful in a different way. I had just recovered from my first injury and it was exactly 1 year and 3 days later that I snapped my other Achilles tendon. The second time I wasn’t sure if it was a sign that I should stop dancing. Luckily, I recovered quickly from the second one and was asked to join Newsies for their Broadway run. That was one of the things that I don’t think would have happened had I not been injured because of timing and location.

Yes, you were in the original Broadway cast of Newsies, which was a popular hit with fans. Why do you think that show has resonated so strongly with audiences?

It seemed to resonate especially strong with a younger demographic. It was a cast and ensemble basically of all men, which is something that happens quite rarely on Broadway. It’s also a show where the ensemble IS the story. I think that made it very relatable to younger audiences, which called themselves “fansies”. It was really cool and they were the best fans!

Alex Wong in Newsies (Photo: Bruce Glikas)

There has been a lot of important discussion recently about diversity on Broadway and enthusiasm for shows such as Hamilton. But other folks, such as Louis Peitzman in his piece “Who Tells Their Story”, have pointed out that the stage is not necessarily equal opportunity for all, especially for Asian-American (or in your case, Asian-Canadian) actors. What are your thoughts on the current state of diversity in theater, especially for actors of Asian descent?

I definitely think it’s been a good few seasons for Asian actors recently with King & I and Miss Saigon revivals. In addition, shows like KPop, Here Lies Love, Allegiance and many more have created a lot of demand for Asian actors. I think, in general, we are still underrepresented although not nearly as much as in Hollywood.

Your career has been so wonderfully varied. Might we see you again back on Broadway?

I definitely will do Broadway again. I love doing it but schedule-wise, it is very time consuming. The 8 shows a week schedule makes it really difficult to get time off. I love doing a variety of work but when I do Broadway, it prevents me from working on movies, tv shows and touring around doing who knows what! I actually have done three City Center Encores shows since I did Newsies, which is an amazing quick fix for my musical theatre bug. I worked on KPop as well but I was working on a movie at that time and it totally conflicted with the schedule. I couldn’t continue with the project which made me really sad because it was an amazing show!

What’s up next for you?

Often things happen last minute, so it’s hard for me to say for sure, but I’m hoping to continue working on more t.v. and film. I’m also working really hard with producing content for my social media. I am working with a lot of incredible companies such as Under Armour, Kenneth Cole, Lab Series and so many more. On Dec 25th, the movie I worked on all last year is releasing in theatres. I’m SUPER excited about it. It’s called The Greatest Showman starring Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Zendaya, and Michele Williams, you know, those “tiny” names. It’s an amazing project about P.T. Barnum. My role is the Oriental Oddity in Barnum’s “Circus of Oddities”. In the film, I am in a red costume with GIGANTIC headpiece.

Alex Wong on the left in red & gold headdress (Photo: Annie Liebovitz)

In concluding that “everything happens for a reason” after his multiple injuries, Wong created meaning from loss, helping him to persist. Whether the injuries he suffered were inevitable to leading him to dance in the theater or if he would have arrived here via a different path, Broadway will always be pleased to have his talents. Be sure to check out Wong on the big screen starting December 25th in The Greatest Showman (also featuring fellow Broadway alum, Keala Settle).

Best,

Dr. Drama