Patricia Hon and Cornish College of the Arts

  • By Lodi McClellan
  • Posted 8/17/2018
  • Essay 20623
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In 1978 Cornish Institute (now Cornish College of the Arts) Dance Director Karen Irvin (1910-1999) invited Patricia Hon (b. 1945) to teach Graham technique and Spanish dance classes for one semester. Hon had grown up in Singapore, trained and performed in Europe, and studied in New York City at the Martha Graham School. She retired from Cornish in May 2018 after 40 years of teaching and choreographing both at the college and for the national and international dance community. Her passion and discipline have left a lasting impression on thousands of students. This People's History was written by Pat Hon's colleague Professor Lodi McClellan, who since 1996 has taught history, writing, ballet, and teaching methods in the Dance Department at Cornish College of the Arts. It is based on interviews with Patricia Hon in 2009 and 2018.

Childhood Roots and Early Ballet Training

Patricia Hon (born Hon Lan Huei; Patricia is her baptismal name) spent her early childhood in Penang, Northwest Malaysia, in an atmosphere of discipline and respect. Hon's mother (Lim Bee Nio, known as Dorothy Hon) hardly ever expressed anger over Pat's moods and finicky attitude. However, her father, Dr. Hon Yung Sen (known by his Christian name, Louis Hon), kept a rattan cane hanging from the wall. He'd tell Pat, "I will use this whenever you are rude to your mother," which was frequently. Her sister Hon Lan Yin, known as Cecilia (b. 1943) and brother Noel, born Hon Chia Chun (b. 1946) never challenged their parents. Yet Pat continued to demonstrate a strong will.

"When I was two or three years old, my dad would prop me up on my legs and I would collapse on the floor like a little puppet," Hon says. She crawled a lot, earning the nickname Kodok (frog). A doctor recommended that she study ballet. "My mother forced me to add ballet to our agenda when I was five. I didn't want to do it." At that time, ballet was something girls did, so Hon persisted, performing in school recitals, once as the girl rabbit with her sister cast as the hunter. "I just hated it," says Hon. "My mother decided to let me stop at age 6." She attributes this battle as one reason for her early independence and stubbornness.

In 1954 when Hon was nine, her family moved to Singapore, where her disciplined life continued. Every Sunday she, her mother, and two siblings would attend Saint Ignatius Catholic Church. She and her sister began Royal Academy of Dancing (R.A.D.) lessons at the Frances School of Dancing. In 1958, when Hon was 13, the Malaya School of Ballet merged with the Frances School of Dancing to become the Singapore Ballet Academy. Vernon Martinus, Frances Poh, and Soonee Goh served as Artistic Directors and principal dancers of the Academy. During this time Hon met Soonee's 10-year old brother Choo San (1948-1987), who became a life-long friend. As corps de ballet dancers Hon and Choo San were featured in the Giselle peasant pas de deux and the Spanish Dance from Swan Lake. With the entire company they also performed a full-length Sleeping Beauty and Michel Fokine's Les Sylphides -- all Royal Ballet versions. Hon developed a reputation for being versatile, "the choreographer's joy."

Hon attended a convent for middle school and then due to her academic record was chosen to attend St. Joseph's Institution for medicine and science. She continued as a student at the Singapore Ballet Academy throughout high school, graduating in 1964. To please her father, who was Dean of Science at the University of Singapore, for one year she attended medical school. "It drove me crazy. I had to do dissections, go to the morgue. Before exams my Dad would help me with my physics homework. I would doodle drawings of Giselle during his lecture classes at school ... I had to dance. I had no interest in academia."

Hon's father wanted his children to be academics and was upset when Pat decided to move to France to study ballet. All his colleagues were saying, "don't let her go" because in those days there was no future in dance. "Dance was nothing. People were fighting to get into medical school. My father had decided I was either going to be a pharmacist or a doctor."

After stubbornly refusing to give in to her father, in 1965 Hon left for France to study for one year with Rosella Hightower at the Centre de Danse Classique in Cannes. "I was 18, going on 19. I learned professionalism from Rosella. She wasn't as nurturing as my teachers in Singapore. I had to learn to work for myself, on my own. I had to learn to compete with other people because I wanted the teacher's eye. Singapore society was starved for dance. Because I left after graduating I became a kind of celebrity. No one would think about leaving Singapore at that time because the city was so successful financially. I was interviewed and performed for television. Articles were written about me."

Early Professional Work

"Rosella's school attracted choreographers and directors from all over Europe. That was how I got into the professional world. Fred Martinez hired me for his company the Opera of Graz in Austria. I was there a year. The ballet master made me a soloist. The first ballet we did was Cinderella. I was the Autumn Fairy. My name was on posters. We would have solo rehearsals with the conductor playing piano and only the ballet master in the room. I would cry because I couldn't do some of the things given me. I couldn't and I couldn't and I would try and try. The choreographer didn't know how to teach it. Finally, I'd just burst into tears. The conductor would be sympathetic. But the ballet master wasn't. It was just another step growing up. You harden yourself. I stayed one year and decided I couldn't take it anymore. So I left and went home to Singapore for six months. I was bold enough to ask the Spanish consulate for a scholarship to go to Spain. The consulate gave me a one-year scholarship, so off I went to Spain."

"I started at the Escuela Real in Madrid, but didn't like the teachers or the students. I looked for other places. I ended up in 'Amor de Dios,' where all the professional flamenco dancers go. I studied ballet with José Granaro every day. Spanish dance class was with Mercedes and her husband Albano. Her aunt was the famous "La Argentina." She taught me classical Spanish. Then she said, 'I think you ought to put on character shoes and do the bata de cola (with a long skirt trailing the floor). Six months into my flamenco training I auditioned for Antonio [a flamenco dancer known professionally by just his first name] and his company, Antonio y sus Bailes de Madrid. Because I was Chinese, and he had heard about me, he gave me a solo audition in his quarters. It lasted an hour and a half. He made me do ballet, Sevillanas, flamenco, whatever I had learned."

Hitting Her Professional Stride

"In Austria I learned to stand up for myself. In Spain I had to survive. The Spanish dancers in those days were really 'witches.' I started in the corps de ballet with Antonio. He wanted me to do the miller's wife, a solo role in the ballet The Three-Cornered Hat [choreographed by Léonide Massine with music by Manuel de Falla]. All the female principals and soloists in the company went to Antonio and said, 'If you give her that role, we leave!' They were very jealous. Antonio always said, 'Patricia, you go up on stage and show them how to do it!' He liked me so I got the brunt of it. It was hard. We'd tour the whole of Spain, especially in the summer. It was HOT. We had no air conditioning in the buses. We would arrive in little towns at 3 a.m. I didn't know enough Spanish to look for a room. The gypsy guitarists and singers would look after me. They knew exactly where to go. I wasn't happy."

"Antonio did put me in the Basque dances, like the jota. One glass, filled with wine, was brought onto the stage. The four soloists, including myself, would have to jump on and off the glass twice. I was terrified. I would break the glass every time. Antonio said, 'You know Patricia, you make me bankrupt because those glasses are not cheap!' The stage would have to be cleaned during performance! Sometimes I would just chicken out and instead of jumping on the glass I'd only dip my toe into the wine [laughs]. We performed in London, at the Royal Albert Hall. I remember breaking the glasses. The audience thought it was hilarious. Finally I said, 'Antonio, why is it that I break it and the other dancers don't?' He said, 'it's timing. If you hesitate for one moment, the bubbles in the glass make the glass explode. He asked me to simply go for it. It did work a couple of times. But apart from that, he had to carry a whole bunch of glasses on tour!"

Dinner Theater and Moving On

"I was also doing club dancing in the off-season. I would join cabarets, like the Calderón theater or the Casablanca Club. I was small, so I'd lead. When I'd come out people in the audience who were drinking wine would shout, "la Chinita, la Chinita!" I couldn't live with myself for one year ... from Les Sylphides and Cinderella, to that ... it was very difficult. I didn't tell my parents. I would dance in 2-3 inch heels with feathers galore, a bikini, sequins, and fake eyelashes. I was so small then, just tiny. The director would always stick gloves up my bikini top to give me that boost! Well, within awhile I made friends. They would teach me the worst words in Spanish. They took me under their wings. I was still very young, very naïve. But in the end I couldn't take the stigma of being a dinner-theater dancer."

"I packed my bag and left for Germany. In the chill of winter I trudged to every Opera House, hoping the ballet master was there. I would look at the place. Time after time I would hate it. But I loved Heidelberg! At the Heidelberg Opera Company I was offered a soloist contract. The choreographer was Drago Boldin. He got me interested in modern. I did the Miraculous Mandarin. I was one woman with 10 men. I was on stage for a half an hour. Nowadays, this is why my classes are very strenuous because I didn't have the stamina then."

"In Heidelberg I was going through a very bad time. Depressed. I put on weight. I thought, maybe it's time to move on. We'd done a lot of modern work so in 1973 I decided I wanted to go to America."

Life in New York and Working with Mary Hinkson

"I lived on 2nd Ave and 63rd Street [in New York City], around the corner from the Graham School. I lived on the top floor at first. There were mice! I moved downstairs, just above the pizzeria. There were roaches! I knew I wanted to study with former Graham Company principal dancer Mary Hinkson [1925-2014]. I got a student visa. I loved the Graham School right away. Being Asian, my proportions suited the technique very well. At the Graham School I learned that Hinkson was teaching at Morelli Ballet Studio. So I went there. Within three months she asked me to be her demonstrator. That was when I learned the most. I was her demonstrator for three years. I was then 32, kind of old to be auditioning for companies."

"I would go with Mary to teach at the Ailey School, and Dance Theater of Harlem. We would go to Europe, to Paris, Cologne. And then, at Morelli Ballet School, Mary suggested that we offer a beginning class, which I taught. It was the first time I taught the Graham technique. Our musician at Morelli's was Tobias Picker [b. 1954]. He composed a symphony for the Brooklyn Bridge and became very famous. He would be so bored in my class. He'd read his newspaper because I had to explain a lot to the kids. After awhile I got mad. I told Mary, 'I'm going to fire him!' And Mary said, 'You do that! How dare he read a newspaper in your class!' So I fired him! Then he became America's top composer! I continued to teach at Morelli's for about a year. Then, I lived and taught in Florence for one year. It was so difficult to get into the life of Florence because I was by myself. I was introverted. I had no accompanist, but the students were eager. I rapped my knuckles on the floor to keep time. I became depressed and addicted to coffee."

Seattle and Cornish Institute

"I returned to New York in 1978. Hinkson and Marjorie Mussman [1943-2009] told me they had received a call from Karen Irvin, director of ballet at the Cornish Institute in Seattle. She was looking for someone to teach a Graham class. I knew Marjorie from Morelli's where she taught ballet. I needed to secure permanent resident status and thought that Cornish might help me with this, so I said yes."

"When I arrived in Seattle I was so homesick for New York, it was incredible. The students at Cornish were doing the Skinner Releasing Technique. The first day I walked in the kids were all lying on the floor thinking about dance. Here I come with my passion and fire and impatience and they freaked out. They really freaked out. I was miserable. The kids at Cornish were not like New York kids."

"At Cornish I taught only Graham and Spanish classes every day, for one semester. Mostly the students were young kids. There was one point where some students complained about me to the president, Mel Strauss [1929-2012], saying I was way too tough but most of them were happy with my teaching. After three months I asked Karen what her plans were. She invited me to stay. I told her I would need my Green Card. Karen hated anything having to do with administration, but she got it for me."

"Karen and I were close friends. Three months turned into 21 years [until Irvin's death in 1999]. After one year Karen needed a ballet teacher for the adults, at 6 p.m. Nobody wanted to do it. I said I'd do it. The students became close to me and wrote a petition asking Karen to keep me as a teacher in the evenings. These were open classes and kids from Karen's daytime classes would come take my classes too. These same students wrote another petition asking Karen to hire me to teach the daytime ballet classes too. I started with the beginning levels and then eventually began teaching advanced classes."

"That first year Karen needed someone to choreograph. It was my first time choreographing. It went over pretty well. The piece was contemporary. From then on I would choreograph two pieces each year. Later, I started teaching in the Preparatory Division. I'd choreograph four pieces each year for the Junior Company. I did that for six years. It got into my blood."

Hon continued to choreograph and restage her work for the Junior Company well into the twenty-first century.

Branching Out with a Company

"In 1984, I thought that maybe I'd start a company, something small. I called it Contempo Dance Theater. At that time there was no other ballet company in Seattle besides Pacific Northwest Ballet. I had choreographed three pieces for PNB's Summer Inventions program in 1980 and 1981 when Kent Stowell and Francia Russell were just starting out."

The three pieces Hon choreographed for PNB were Paradise Lost (composer: Béla Bartøk, "Sonata for 2 Pianos and Percussion"); Phoenix (composer: Bern Herbolsheimer, "Phoenix Variations"); and Three Dimensions: An Interlude, with two other choreographers, Terry Port and Kabby Mitchell (composer: Jean-Henri Alkan, "Camera").

"Then, in 1984 I wrote to Atlanta Ballet offering to set a piece [Dark Song, composer: Bern Herbolsheimer]. I applied to the N.E.A. and got a grant. Then I was the first ballet company that the Broadway Performance Hall's director John Vadino [b. 1958] produced. I hired some Cornish kids and dancers from PNB to be in my pick-up company but decided, after one year, 'this is not for me.' It was expensive. I decided to disband. I couldn't teach and run a company. I couldn't do both."

During this time Hon also choreographed for the Singapore Ballet, Ballet Concerto of Miami, Goh Ballet in Canada, Federal Ballet Company of Malaysia, Ballet Petit, and for dancers competing in the International Ballet Competitions in Jackson, Mississippi.

Committing to Cornish

In 1985 Hon decided she needed to put down roots at Cornish. For the next 23 years she choreographed for Cornish Dance Theater and taught Graham, ballet, pointe, Spanish, and Flamenco classes to thousands of students in her unique, inimitable style. She says, "My focus on helping students to improve their legs and feet comes from my early years when I was bowlegged and weak. I learned how to persevere. My teaching was always about 'I'm the teacher' and not a collaboration with my students. No questioning. If anybody wasn't happy I'd say, 'You can talk to me later. Just do what I tell you to do and you'll do well.' My approach would send many students into tears. When Kitty [Daniels] was Chair there was more emphasis on anatomy. In recent years I've stepped back a little bit, giving my students room to breathe and to grow." In 2017 a graduating senior said, "Pat Hon has not only inspired me but ... has challenged me and encouraged me to strive for my full potential every class. Her methods are sound, true, rich."

Between June and December 2008, Hon took a sabbatical from Cornish to serve as the Head of Dance at the School of the Arts in Singapore. Through 2018 she continued to teach there in the summers. Since her retirement from Cornish she has been teaching ballet locally, at eXit Space, Allegro Performing Arts Academy, Spectrum Dance Theater, and in the Cornish Preparatory Division.

Author's Acknowledgements: Pat Hon; Sheila C. Dietrich, Pacific Northwest Ballet Archivist

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