Rant & Rave

Op-Ed: Why Is Ballet So Bad at Representing Asians Onstage? Look at The Choreographers

A couple weeks ago, I went to see New York City Ballet's Tribute To Robbins, which featured Warren Carlyle's lovely restaging of Jerome Robbins' Broadway choreography. But as the number from The King and I began, I felt a familiar discomfort.

I rolled my eyes at the faux-Thai headdresses and the "exotic" musical motifs—irritations transferred from the musical, whose Orientalist tendencies are well-documented. But my disappointment doubled as I realized that I have never seen a ballet choreographed by an Asian American on that stage.

I left frustrated and confused. As a young dancer and Filipino American, I look up to performers and choreographers who share my Asian-American heritage. Where are they?


Asian Americans have carved out complicated spaces in the dance canon amidst stereotypes and discrimination. According to scholars like Yutian Wong, there's a long history of Asian-American performance, from Chinatown "Chop Suey" vaudeville circuits to active roles in the modern and postmodern dance movements.

Shen Wei — In Black, White and Gray at Miami Dade College's Museum of Art + Design. Photo by Moris Moreno

On YouTube, crisp hip-hop routines by Asian-American choreographers regularly net millions of views. Manhattan-based Shen Wei choreographed the beautiful, calligraphy-inspired opening ceremony of Beijing's 2008 Olympics. Avant-garde artists like Eiko & Koma, Sam Kim and Denise Uyehara push at dance's limits.

Renowned ballet companies feature Asian-American principals like Yuan Yuan Tan, Stella Abrera, Hee Seo and Amar Ramasar. The National Ballet of China's 2015 appearance at Lincoln Center showcased China's long-running cultural engagement with the Western dance form.

But one of the greatest gaping holes, where hardly an Asian American is to be found, is in contemporary ballet choreography. On mainstream stages, Asian-ness is present, but in limited and problematic ways.

The Nutcracker's "Chinese/Tea" divertissement, perhaps the most widely known instance of "Asian" ballet in the canon, is sadly prone to stereotypical treatment.

A more recent example is Peter Martins' The Chairman Dances. Choreographed to music from John Adams' opera Nixon in China, it premiered in 1988, and has been revived several times since.

Writing for The New York Times after its premiere, dance critic Anna Kisselgoff pointed out that its "Chinoiserie" never takes into account "the extent to which Chinese viewers are offended by … ballet dancers acting like China dolls in pajamas." Two decades later, Alastair Macaulay panned it as a "pseudo-Maoist pastiche," questioning why City Ballet revived it in the first place.

NYCB's Abi Stafford in The Chairman Dances. Photo by Paul Kolnik

Last fall, it was staged again as part of the company's 21st Century Choreographers program. It was featured alongside Lauren Lovette's bold ballet Not Our Fate, which incorporated same-sex partnering, and Composer's Holiday by 18-year-old Gianna Reiser, the company's youngest commissioned dancemaker.

Next to these two milestones, Chairman Dances is woefully out of place. Rather than reprise a tired, problematic ballet, why not feature an actual "21st Century Choreographer" from a Chinese background?

Edwaard Liang leading an onstage class at BalletMet. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda, courtesy BalletMet

Asian-American dancemakers do find some representation beyond mainstream stages. BalletX's Caili Quan choreographed Toe The Line for the Columbia Ballet Collaborative this spring. In Ohio, Edwaard Liang, a former NYCB and NDT soloist, leads BalletMet as artistic director and actively makes new ballets. Ma Cong serves as resident choreographer of Tulsa Ballet.

The late Goh Choo-San is the one Asian-American choreographer whose work was especially prominent in Lincoln Center: the Baryshnikov-commissioned Configurations, for American Ballet Theatre. As resident choreographer of The Washington Ballet in the 1980s, he created several neo-classical works for American companies.

The ballet world is slow to change, but we already know that it can. Last year, Alexei Ratmansky's claim that there's "no such thing as [gender] equality in ballet" was swiftly rebuked, in dance writing circles and in works like Lovette's.

Minority representation is trickling through. Kyle Abraham is on deck to create a work for NYCB next year as the fourth African-American dancemaker to do so. But the trickle should be a deluge—we must acknowledge, and then rectify, the fact that underrepresentation on stages and screens has almost always been about bias, prejudice and racism rather than who is, or isn't, truly talented.

Ballet's "timeless" image must evolve or risk obsolescence. This evolution must include Asian Americans, not only onstage as dancers, but also in the studio as dancemakers and storytellers—far beyond simple tokenism or "East Meets West" features. It's time for fewer Chairman Dances, and more Asians in the choreographer's chair.
The Conversation
News
Valdes and Alonso. Photo by Nancy Reyes, courtesy BNC

Alicia Alonso's famed ballet company in Cuba has a new leader: the beloved hometown prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés.

Ballet Nacional of Cuba just named Valdés deputy artistic director, which means she will immediately assume the daily responsibilities of running the company. Alonso, 98, will retain the title of general director, but in practice, Valdés will be the one making all the artistic decisions.

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
Photo by Ahmad Odeh/Unsplash

I'm terrified of performing choreography that changes directions. I messed up last year when the stage lights caused me to become disoriented. What can I do to prevent this from happening again? I can perform the combination just fine in the studio with the mirror.

—Scared, San Francisco, CA

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
It's not about what you have, but how you use. Photo by Brooke Cagle/Unsplash

From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.

Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."

While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Training
Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy MCB

It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.

When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Training
Instructor Judine Somerville leads a musical theater class. Photo by Rachel Papo

On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.

"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."

Keep reading... Show less
News
Brooklyn Studios for Dance founder Pepper Fajans illustrates the cold temperatures inside the studio. Screenshot via Vimeo.

Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.

Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.

So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Anika Huizinga via Unsplash

As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.

But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:

Keep reading... Show less
News
The International Association of Blacks in Dance's annual audition for ballet dancers of color. Photo by E. Mesiyah McGinnis, Courtesy IABD

A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.

"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."

Keep reading... Show less
The Creative Process
Nashiville Ballet artistic director Paul Vasterling went through executive coaching to be come a better leader. Photo by Anthony Matula, Courtesy Nashville Ballet

From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.

But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."

The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."

Keep reading... Show less
Popular

If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.

Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)

Keep reading... Show less
News
Credits with photos below.

For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.

Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.

Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:

Keep reading... Show less
Irina Dvorovenko with Tony Yazbeck in The Beast in the Jungle. Photo by Carol Rosegg, Courtesy Sam Rudy Media Relations.

Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.

If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance & Science
Amar Odeh/Unsplash

Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.

That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.

Keep reading... Show less
25 to Watch
Photo credits, clockwise from bottom left: Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet; Jayme Thornton; Jochen Viehoff, Courtesy Stephanie Troyak; Karolina Kuras, Courtesy National Ballet of Canada; Natasha Razina, Courtesy State Academic Mariinsky Theatre; Kim Kenney, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet; Jim Lafferty; Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet; Altin Kaftira, Courtesy Dutch National Ballet; Scott Shaw, Courtesy Shamar Wayne Watt

What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.

Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Photos via Polunin's Instagram

If you follow Sergei Polunin on Instagram, you've probably noticed that lately something has been...off.

Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:

Keep reading... Show less
The Creative Process
Forsythe's in the middle, somewhat elevated uses the battement like an attack. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet

Just before retiring in 2015, Sylvie Guillem appeared on "HARDtalk with Zeinab Badawi," the BBC's hard-hitting interview program. Badawi told Guillem,

"Clement Crisp of the Financial Times, 14 years ago, described your dancing as vulgar."

Guillem responded,

"Yeah, well, he said that. But at the same time, when they asked Margot Fonteyn what she thought about lifting the leg like this she said, 'Well, if I could have done it, I would have done it.' "

They were discussing Guillem's signature stroke—her 180-degree leg extension à la seconde. Ballet legs had often flashed about in the higher zones between 135 and 160 degrees before. But it wasn't until the virtuoso French ballerina regularly
extended her leg beside her ear with immaculate poise in the 1980s that leg extensions for ballet dancers in classical roles reached their zenith. Traditionalists like Clement Crisp were not taken with it.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Umi Akiyoshi Photography, Courtesy Sidra Bell Dance New York

Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."

Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Courtesy Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.

Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
When you spend most of your day at the theater, it's challenging to find time to date. Photo by rawpixel/Unsplash.

My personal life has taken a nosedive since I broke up with my boyfriend. He's in the same show and is now dating one of my colleagues. It's heartbreaking to see them together, and I'm determined never to date a fellow dancer again. But it's challenging to find someone outside, as I practically live in the theater. Do you have any advice?

—Loveless, New York, NY

Keep reading... Show less
News
Carol Channing in the original 1964 production of Hello, Dolly! Photo by Eileen Darby, Courtesy DM Archives.

The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.

Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.

Keep reading... Show less
News
It includes this familiar face! (Erin Baiano)

Something's coming, I don't know when
But it's soon...maybe tonight?

Those iconic lyrics have basically been our #mood ever since we first heard a remake of the West Side Story film, directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck, was in the works. THE CASTING. THE CASTING WAS COMING.

Well, last night—after an extensive search process that focused on finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican/Latinx community—the WSS team finally revealed who'll be playing Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Chino (joining Ansel Elgort, who was cast as Tony last fall). And you guys: It is a truly epic group.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox