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By Allan Ulrich
SFB's Yuan Yuan Tan blends glittering technique with subtle artistry to create her stage magic.
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.
Photo by Matthew Karas.