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SFB's Yuan Yuan Tan blends glittering technique with subtle artistry to create her stage magic.
PC Matthew Karas
Ask Yuan Yuan Tan if she is a big deal in her own country and watch her choreographed response. In a display of modesty any Giselle might envy, the Shanghai native softens her shoulders and lowers her chin demurely but her eyes cannot dissemble. The effect is endearing. You bet, she's a big deal.
“Not to disappoint," Tan says with typical understatement, “is part of the Chinese character."
No chance of that. Tan is the first Chinese-born ballerina to rise to the top of the American ballet world and remain there. In her 15 years at San Francisco Ballet, she has performed a huge repertory, from Petipa to Wheeldon. She has been called artistic director Helgi Tomasson's muse—a bit to his chagrin. She has been photographed by Vogue and W., and made the cover of Time Asia. Having guested with ballet companies in Hong Kong and Shanghai, she was a major reason that the Chinese government approved SFB's premiere tour to her homeland this past fall. At 33, Tan is at the peak of her dancing powers, yet the quality of innocence one noticed in this scrawny Sugar Plum ballerina during a weekday Nutcracker matinee 14 years ago still adheres to her.
Sure, dedication, hard work, and talent have had much to do with her success. But her actual career hinged on nothing more than a toss of a coin. “My family are practicing Buddhists," she says, “and we trust in chance."
Watching a film of Bolshoi great Galina Ulanova on TV convinced Tan that ballet was her destiny. Her athletic ability in grade school impressed a scout for the Shanghai Dancing School. For that institution, she survived several grueling rounds of auditions, which began with over a thousand hopefuls and concluded with 24 finalists.
However, Tan, an only child, met resistance at home. Her father, a semiconductor engineer, forbade her to train as a ballerina. “He said ballet was Western, not Chinese culture," Tan recalls. “Also because a ballerina's career is very short, and because it is not proper for a Chinese girl to be lifted by lots of men. He is part of very old Chinese tradition."
But Tan's mother and the head of the school intervened. Spats erupted daily. The coin was tossed. Dad, who preferred that his daughter study medicine or law, lost. And, at 11, Tan began her training. She soon grew to her full height (5'10"on pointe). Technique wasn't a problem, she says, but it was a struggle to learn to control her musculature. “I needed stamina."
Still, Tan began entering competitions and scoring high. She made the rounds from Helsinki to Tokyo and remains ambivalent about the competition circuit. “This was the first time I saw contemporary ballet and the first time I saw what dancers from all over the world were trying to achieve," says Tan. “The bad part was that I was always close to a nervous breakdown when I competed. If I let myself down, I let my country down."
SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson saw Tan take the gold, junior female division, at the fifth International Ballet Competition in Paris in 1992. “I thought," he says now, “that this was a beautiful young lady, full of promise." Earlier, a New York friend had told him to look out for this extraordinary dancer from Shanghai, suggesting that she might benefit from some experience in an American company.
Tan had already accepted a scholarship to the Stuttgart Ballet's Cranko School (and studied there briefly) when Tomasson invited her to come to the Bay Area as a guest artist. “I was 18, spoke no English, arrived with one suitcase, and decided to stay. I guess Stuttgart is very mad at me," she adds, sheepishly. Her beauty and flexibility in that Nutcracker and in an Esmeralda pas de deux at the 1995 gala sent shock waves through the War Memorial Opera House. Tomasson hired Tan as soloist, but imposed one condition.
“He said, 'You're a good dancer,' " Tan remembers. “ 'But you look like a student. You are too thin. It would be better if you put on weight. I will tell you when it is right.' "
She gained enough weight to be appointed principal in 1997. YY, as Tan is known around SFB, began her historic ascent through the repertory. Her name, Yuan Yuan, translates as “round, round"; she was born during a full moon, a sign of good luck, and where creating new ballets is concerned, fortune has smiled on her.
Choreographers have rushed to capitalize on Tan's willowy extremities, her long torso, her refined port de bras, her ample jump, and her manner of devouring space without shifting gears. Her instinctive command of legato is a quality that cannot be taught.
Christopher Wheeldon cast Tan in his SFB creation, Continuum, and subsequently assigned her the Wendy Whelan part in the After the Rain pas de deux, in which she fused geometry with sensuality. Tan will assume a principal role in Wheeldon's new SFB work, Ghosts, to premiere in February. “YY's physical gifts are exceptional," he says, “and like any great dancer, she has a distinct perfume." He calls her “an artist who can transcend those physical attributes."
Wheeldon's point is worth pondering. Tan might have relied on her architecture and ravishing looks, but she has not ceased to investigate the possibilities of her craft. Every choreographer offers a challenge, another step in her continuing education. She had never seen any Balanchine before arriving in San Francisco and her first appearances in Aria I of Stravinsky Violin Concerto were clearly exploratory. But in 2001, when Tomasson toured Bugaku, London critic Ann Williams wrote online, “She was so beautiful that…it was simply impossible to look away from her."
At a rehearsal last summer for the U.S. premiere of John Neumeier's The Little Mermaid, Tan had just stubbed a toe tripping over her costume tail (probably a first for any ballerina). But, in other respects, she enthuses over this psychological recasting of the Hans Christian Andersen tale.
“It's my first Neumeier ballet. He's a great teacher," Tan says. “The dancers are inspired by his concentration. He shows us how to express ourselves through his steps."
Tan knows what she wants from the rehearsal experience. “I like a choreographer to explain his vision. It helps us to absorb the piece. Alexei Ratmansky was wonderful in telling us the background to Russian Seasons last year."
Tan has ventured, too, into Forsythe territory. “He's fascinating," she says. “He pushes you to the extreme, and then you reach a point where he sends you beyond your limitations. It's like going through a wall." And she relishes James Kudelka's advice: “Don't try to be pretty." Nacho Duato heads the list of choreographers whose dances she fancies performing, and she's interested in sampling more of Edwaard Liang's work too.
Audiences have noticed the almost serene quality in Tan's stage manner, and some observers confuse that demeanor with coldness. The impression may derive from the dancer's approach. “I am a perfectionist," she says. “In rehearsal, I will stay afterward to work for an hour on a variation, and I work on the level of a single note of music, a single step. Onstage, I empty my mind; I don't want to think of anything at all."
Tan stands out in company class. Watching her go through barre exercises with three dozen other women on a sunny morning in the SFB Association Building, one notices that she is among the few people who have positioned themselves to face a bare wall, though she can't resist the occasional glance at a side mirror. Even in this roomful of talent, something about her is different. Perhaps it's the chin, raised aristocratically, lending the entire body an almost calligraphic elegance.
Tan does not lack for self-criticism. She wishes her turns were stronger. “I'm OK, but I'll never do them like Tamara Rojo at The Royal Ballet."
But she can accurately chart her progress in the basic repertory. Tan looked at the video of her Black Swan variation and was thrilled to discover that, during the iconic fouetté sequence, she no longer travels downstage. Her interpretation of Giselle has evolved, too. “I have come to believe that she should be more inwards," she says about the role. “Sometimes, emotion inside is so much more intense. She should not go berserk."
What has not changed is Tan's belief that she is a cultural ambassador, a link between east and west. She and Tomasson had talked for a while about a Chinese tour for SFB. But something, like the SARS epidemic, had always stalled the plan. Last year, Tomasson allowed Tan to slip away for a few days to attend the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics (and to meet with officials) and the deal was sealed.
“I was so happy to make this happen," Tan says. “It's not for me. It's for the whole company and for Helgi."
But the tour, which met appreciative audiences in both Shanghai and Beijing, was also for China. “My country should see the diversity of the repertory. I hope I can open the door, so that the Chinese will appreciate the speed of Balanchine's movement and his difficult music. I hope they will learn that ballet is about more than just telling a story."
Allan Ulrich is a Dance Magazine Senior Advising Editor.
Never did I think I'd see the day when I'd outgrow dance. Sure, I knew my life would have to evolve. In fact, my dance career had already taken me through seasons of being a performer, a choreographer, a business owner and even a dance professor. Evolution was a given. Evolving past dancing for a living, however, was not.
Transitioning from a dance career involved just as much of a process as building one did. But after I overcame the initial identity crisis, I realized that my dance career had helped me develop strengths that could be put to use in other careers. For instance, my work as a dance professor allowed me to discover my knack for connecting with students and helping them with their careers, skills that ultimately opened the door for a pivot into college career services.
Here's how five dance skills can land you a new job—and help you thrive in it:
When you spend as much time on the road as The Royal Ballet's Steven McRae, getting access to a proper gym can be a hassle. To stay fit, the Australian-born principal turns to calisthenics—the old-school art of developing aerobic ability and strength with little to no equipment.
"It's basically just using your own body weight," McRae explains. "In terms of partnering, I'm not going to dance with a ballerina who is bigger than me, so if I can sustain my own body weight, then in my head I should be fine."
I always knew my ballet career would eventually end. It was implied from the very start that at some point I would be too old and decrepit to take morning ballet class, followed by six hours of intense rehearsals.
What I never imagined was that I would experience a time when I couldn't walk at all.
In rehearsal for Nutcracker in 2013, I slipped while pushing off for a fouetté sauté, instantly rupturing the ACL in my right knee. In that moment my dance life flashed before my eyes.
Last week in a piece I wrote about the drama at English National Ballet, I pointed out that many of the accusations against artistic director Tamara Rojo—screaming at dancers, giving them the silent treatment, taking away roles without explanation—were, unfortunately, pretty standard practice in the ballet world:
If it's a conversation we're going to have, we can't only point the finger at ENB.
The line provoked a pretty strong response. Professional dancers, students and administrators reached out to me, making it clear that it's a conversation they want to have. Several shared their personal stories of experiencing abusive behavior.
Christopher Hampson, artistic director of the Scottish Ballet, wrote his thoughts about the issue on his company's website on Monday:
We all know that companies too often take dancers for granted. When I wrote last week about a few common ways in which dancers are mistreated—routine screaming, humiliation, being pressured to perform injured and be stick-thin—I knew I was only scratching the surface.
So I put out a call to readers asking for your perspective on the most pressing issues that need to be addressed first, and what positive changes we might be able to make to achieve those goals.
The bottom line: Readers agree it's time to hold directors accountable, particularly to make sure that dancers are being paid fairly. But the good news is that change is already happening. Here are some of the most intriguing ideas you shared via comments, email and social media:
With dancer and choreographer credits that cover everything from touring with Beyoncé to music videos and even feature films, Tricia Miranda knows more than a thing or two about what it takes to make it. And aspiring dancers are well aware. We caught up with the commercial dance queen last weekend at the Brooklyn Funk convention, where she taught a ballroom full of dancers classes in hip-hop and dancing for film and video.
How To Land An Agency
"At times with the agencies, they already have someone that looks like you or you're just not ready to work. Look has to do with a lot of it, work ethic and also just the type of person you are. Do you have personality? Do people want to work with you? Because you can be the greatest dancer, but if you're not someone that gives off this energy of wanting to get to know you, then it doesn't matter how dope you are because people want to work with who they want to be around. I learned that by later transitioning into a choreographer because now that I'm hiring people, I want to hire the people that I want to be around for 12 or 14 hours a day.
You also have to understand that class dancers are different from working commercial dancers. A lot of class dancers and what you see in these YouTube videos are people who stand out because they're doing what they want and remixing choreography. They're kind of stars in their own right, which is great for class, but when it comes to a job, you have to do the choreography how it's taught."
Houston's METdance and the Dallas-based Bruce Wood Dance have teamed up to commission a new work from Dallas native (and former Dallas Black Dance Theatre artistic director) Bridget L. Moore. The two contemporary companies will take the stage together in Dallas at Moody Performance Hall on March 16 and at Houston's Hobby Center for the Performing Arts on April 13–15. Visit brucewooddance.org and metdance.org for details on the respective engagements.
Onstage, Clifton Brown is a force of nature. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer joined the celebrated company at 19, in 1999. In 2011, he left to dance with Jessica Lang Dance and Lar Lubovitch Dance Company before returning to Ailey last year. Brown has been trying his hand at choreography on the side, but this week his first larger work—a commission from The Washington Ballet artistic director Julie Kent—premieres on a program of new works by choreographers who still perform.
Brown will take a day or two away from the Ailey company's rigorous tour schedule to see TWB dancers perform his Menagerie, danced to Rossini's Duet for Cello and Double Bass in D Major, at Washington, D.C.'s Harman Center for the Arts. We caught up with him last week in Chicago.
Once Adriana Pierce caught the choreography bug as a teenager, dancemaking came naturally. More difficult was navigating the tricky situations that would arise when choreographing on classmates and friends. "If a rehearsal didn't go well, I'd worry that people didn't respect me or didn't like my work," says Pierce, who went on to participate in the School of American Ballet's Student Choreography Workshop twice, at 17 and 18. "I had a lot to learn: how not to take things personally, how to express what I wanted, when to push and when to back off."
Choreographing on your peers can feel intimidating. How can you be a leader in your own rehearsals when you're dancing at the same level the rest of the time? How can you critique your cast without hurting feelings? Avoiding pitfalls takes commitment and care, but the payoff is worth it.
Ever since we heard that Michaela DePrince's memoir, Taking Flight, was going to be a movie, we've been on the edge of our seats waiting for more info. Almost three years later, it's been worth the wait—we just learned that the Queen of Pop herself will be directing DePrince's biopic.
"Michaela's journey resonated with me deeply as both an artist and an activist who understands adversity," Madonna said in a statement. "We have a unique opportunity to shed light on Sierra Leone and let Michaela be the voice for all the orphaned children she grew up beside."