Qian Liu
Photo: Jan Willem Kaldenbach

Qian Liu


The first ballet Qian Liu saw as a young girl was Erquan Yingyue: a full-length, heart-rending work about the love between an erhu (‘Chinese violin’) player and a beautiful young embroiderer. “The story was so sad and so beautiful. From one minute to the next, I was spellbound.” Shortly afterwards, without going to any classes for kids or amateurs – or as Qian puts it ‘with no baby moment’ – she was accepted at the school of the company that had performed Erquan Yingyue: Liaoning Ballet in Shenyang, over 1500 kilometres from her parents’ home in Henan.

“I was nine-and-a-half, so the clock was ticking. All my classmates were much more advanced and everything was new to me, so I knew right away I had to work really hard. But that’s all I wanted to do. Early in the first year of school, when I had to go back to Shenyang for the first time on my own after a Chinese public holiday, I did have a hard time for a while, but over the next six years there was never a moment when I felt down or when I thought about giving up.”

Qian Liu
Qian Liu in Swan Lake (2019) | Photos: Altin Kaftira
Qian Liu

Showered with awards 

Qian was never bothered by the proverbial ‘tough Chinese schooling’. “Like all the teachers, my regular teacher was exceptionally kind. Even when I couldn’t do something straight away, they thought ‘well, she’s such a hard worker, she’ll be able to do it like the best of them tomorrow’.” In the last year-and-a-half of her training, Qian took classes with Liaoning Ballet and, encouraged by the artistic director and her teachers, from then on she also entered various ballet competitions in East Asia and was showered with awards. And with the company, where she danced from 2006 to 2012, she was soon promoted to principal dancer. In that rank, she danced the main roles in The Sleeping Beauty, Le Corsaire, Don Quixote, La Sylphide and various Chinese ballets.

Only choice

She felt completely at home with Liaoning Ballet, too – “school and company: we were one big family” – but after a few years, she came to realise that she wanted to see more of the world and to expand her repertoire. And she knew immediately where she wanted to go: Dutch National Ballet, which was familiar to her from the company’s online videos. She says enthusiastically, “It really was the only choice for me, and it turned out to be a great one. I love it here so much!” The move to the Netherlands, however, was tough. “Everything was different! Amsterdam, the food, the supermarkets, the mentality and the lack of daylight after working hours in the wintertime. But most difficult of all was that I couldn’t communicate with others – as I didn’t speak a word of English. I felt really sorry for people when they talked to me and I couldn’t reply.” But nowadays, Amsterdam feels like a second home. “I love the peace and quiet. When I go on holiday to China, I’m almost shocked by the number of people.” 

Qian Liu in Romeo en Julia
Qian Liu in Romeo and Julia (2019) | Photos: Marc Haegeman
Qian Liu in Romeo en Julia

Enige keus 

Ook bij het Liaoning Ballet voelt ze zich als een vis in het water – “school en gezelschap: we waren één grote familie”–, maar toch groeit na een aantal jaren het besef dat ze meer van de wereld wil zien en haar repertoire wil uitbreiden. En ze weet ook meteen wáár ze dat wil: bij Het Nationale Ballet, dat ze kent van de online-video’s van het gezelschap. Enthousiast: “Dit was voor mij echt de enige keus en het bleek een geweldige keus: I love it here so much!” De verhuizing naar Nederland was echter pittig. “Alles was anders! Amsterdam, het eten, de supermarkten, de mentaliteit, het gebrek aan daglicht na werktijd in de wintermaanden. Maar het allermoeilijkst was dat ik – omdat ik geen woord Engels sprak – niet met anderen kon communiceren. Ik had echt met mensen te doen wanneer ze tegen mij praatten en ik niks terug kon zeggen.” Maar inmiddels voelt Amsterdam als een tweede huis. “Ik houd van de rust. Als ik op vakantie in China ben, schrik ik bijna van de hoeveelheid mensen.”

Qian Liu in Cinderella
Qian Liu in Cinderella (2018) | Photo: Altin Kaftira
Qian Liu in Het Zwanenmeer met Semyon Velichko
Qian Liu in Swan Lake with Semyon Velichko (2019) | Photo: Altin Kaftira

Preference for drama 

The first main roles she danced with Dutch National Ballet are important to her: Kitri in Don Quixote and Swanhilda in Coppelia, after which she was promoted to principal in 2016. But almost logically in view of her first experience, her preference is for very dramatic ballets. “It may sound weird, but I enjoy sad ballets so much.” The roles of Tatiana and Olga in Onegin, both of which she’s danced, are incredibly precious to her, and that of Giselle (in the ballet of the same name) takes the cake. “The first time I was allowed to dance that role, I cried regularly during rehearsals. I really felt her pain, and you have to as well. You have to believe that you’re her, because if you don’t believe it then how can the audience?” 



It’s now many years since Qian graduated from the Liaoning Ballet School, but the school has not forgotten her at all. Today’s dance students are regularly told by their teachers that they should model themselves on Qian, who was always in the studio and always working so hard. It makes her laugh, “When I go back to the school, I’m besieged by children all yelling excitedly, ‘Oh Qian, oh sister’.” But hard work is still something Qian does. She says matter-of-factly, “I just love ballet so much. If I’m in a bad mood, dancing makes me feel better again. For me, it’s real medicine.” 

Qian Liu - Giselle ©Younsik Kim
Qian Liu - Giselle (2018) | Foto: Younsik Kim
Qian Liu in Frank Bridge Variations
Qian Liu in Frank Bridge Variations (2017) | Photo: Sasha Gouliaev


Het is inmiddels alweer vele jaren geleden dat Qian afstudeerde aan de Liaoning Ballet School, maar ze is binnen de school nog lang niet vergeten. De huidige dansstudenten krijgen van hun docenten regelmatig te horen dat ze een voorbeeld aan Qian moeten nemen, die áltijd in de studio was en áltijd keihard werkte. Zelf moet ze erom lachen: “Als ik terug op mijn school ben, word ik belaagd door kinderen, die allemaal opgewonden roepen: ‘O Qian, o sister’.” Maar keihard werken, dat doet Qian nog steeds. Nuchter zegt ze: “Ik houd gewoon zó van ballet. Als ik in een slechte bui ben, knap ik door te dansen helemaal op. Het is voor mij echt een medicijn.” 

Text: Astrid van Leeuwen

Read more:

Qian Liu
Qian Liu in Swan Lake (2019) | Photo: Altin Kaftira
Qian Liu in Don Quichot
Qian Liu in Don Quichot (2018) | Photo: nnb
Qian Liu and Semyon Velichko in Giselle
Qian Liu and Semyon Velichko in Giselle (2018) | Photo: Hans Gerritsen
Qian Liu in Don Quichot
Qian Liu in Don Quichot (2018) | Photo: Altin Kaftira
Qian Liu and Semyon Velichko
Qian Liu and Semyon Velichko rehearsing for The Nutcracker (2019) | Photo: Altin Kaftira
Qian Liu en Semyon Velichko repeteren voor The Sleeping Beauty
Qian Liu and Semyon Velichko rehearsing for The Sleeping Beauty (2017) | Photo: Altin Kaftira
Qian Liu during rehearsals for Onegin
Qian Liu during rehearsals for Onegin (2017) | Photo: Altin Kaftira


Place of birth: 
Henan (China)

With Dutch National Ballet since: 

Career with Dutch National Ballet: 
Principal (2016), soloist (2013), coryphée (2013), corps de ballet (2012)

Previously danced with: 
Liaoning Ballet (Shenyang, China) 

Liaoning Ballet School (Shenyang, China)


  • 2020: nominated for Dancer of the Year Award, Critics’ Choice Dance Europe
  • 2011: Seoul Ballet Competition (South Korea), 1st prize
  • CCTV National Dance Competition (China), 1st prize
  • 2008: Tokyo Ballet Competition (Tokyo, Japan), 1st prize
  • 2006: Tao Li Cap Dance Competition (China), 1st prize
  • 2006: Seoul Ballet Competition (Seoul, South Korea), 2nd prize

Honourable mentions:

  • 2019: ‘Outstanding performance by a female dancer’, Critics’ Choice Dance Europe