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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.
New York City–based dancers know Gibney. It's a performance venue, a dance company, a rehearsal space, an internship possibility—a Rubik's Cube of resources bundled into two sites at 280 and 890 Broadway. And in March of this year, Gibney (having officially dropped "Dance" from its name) announced a major expansion of its space and programming; it now operates a total of 52,000 square feet, 23 studios and five performance spaces across the two locations.
Six of those studios and one performance space are brand-new at the 280 Broadway location, along with several programs. EMERGE will commission new works by emerging choreographic voices for the resident Gibney Dance Company each year; Making Space+ is an extension of Gibney's Making Space commissioning and presenting program, focused on early-career artists. For the next three years, the Joyce Theater Foundation's artist residency programs will be run out of one of the new Gibney studios, helping to fill the gap left by the closing of the Joyce's DANY Studios in 2016.
What is the right flooring system for us?
So many choices, companies, claims, endorsements, and recommendations to consider. The more you look, the more confusing it gets. Here is what you need to do. Here is what you need to know to get the flooring system suited to your needs.
"I'm sorry, but I just can't possibly give you the amount of money you're asking for."
My heart sinks at my director's final response to my salary proposal. She insists it's not me or my work, there is just no money in the budget. My disappointment grows when handed the calendar for Grand Rapids Ballet's next season with five fewer weeks of work.
"It just...always looks better in my head."
While that might not be something any of us would want to hear from a choreographer, it's a brilliant introduction to "Off Kilter" and the odd, insecure character at its center, Milton Frank. The ballet mockumentary (think "The Office" or "Parks and Recreation," but with pointe shoes) follows Frank (dancer-turned-filmmaker Alejandro Alvarez Cadilla) as he comes back to the studio to try his hand at choreographing for the first time since a plagiarism scandal derailed his fledgling career back in the '90s.
We've been pretty excited about the series for a while, and now the wait is finally over. The first episode of the show, "The Denial," went live earlier today, and it's every bit as awkward, hilarious and relatable as we hoped.
Dancers crossing over into the fitness realm may be increasingly popular, but it was never part of French-born Julie Granger's plan. Though Granger grew up a serious ballet student, taking yoga classes on the side eventually led to a whole new career. Creating her own rules along the way, Granger shares how combining the skills she learned in ballet with certifications in yoga, barre and personal training allowed her to become her own boss (and a rising fitness influencer).
Travis Wall draws inspiration from dancers Tate McCrae, Timmy Blankenship and more.
One often-overlooked relationship that exists in dance is the relationship between choreographer and muse. Recently two-time Emmy Award Winner Travis Wall opened up about his experience working with dancers he considers to be his muses.
"My muses in choreography have evolved over the years," says Wall. "When I'm creating on Shaping Sound, our company members, my friends, are my muses. But at this current stage of my career, I'm definitely inspired by new, fresh talent."
Wall adds, "I'm so inspired by this new generation of dancers. Their teachers have done such incredible jobs, and I've seen these kids grown up. For many of them, I've had a hand in their exposure to choreography."
José Greco popularized Spanish dance in 1950s and '60s America through his work onstage and on screen. Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater's American Spanish Dance & Music Festival is honoring the icon in recognition of what would have been his 100th birthday. As part of the tribute, Greco's three dancing children are reuniting to perform together for the first time since their father's death in 2000. Also on the program is the premiere of contemporary flamenco choreographer Carlos Rodriguez's Mar de Fuego (Sea of Fire). June 15–17, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. ensembleespanol.org.
Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers Christopher McDaniel and Crystal Serrano were working on Nacho Duato's Coming Together in rehearsal when McDaniel's foot hit a slippery spot on the marley. As they attempted a swinging lift, both dancers went tumbling, injuring Serrano as they fell. She ended up being out for a week with a badly bruised knee.
"I immediately felt, This is my fault," says McDaniel. "I broke my friend."
What's on the minds of college students today?
I recently had the honor of adjudicating at the American College Dance Association's National College Dance Festival, along with choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess and former National Endowment for the Arts dance specialist Douglas C. Sonntag. We chose three winners—one for Outstanding Choreography and two for Outstanding Performance—from 30 pieces representing schools throughout the country. It was a great opportunity to see what college dance students are up to—from the issues they care about to the kinds movement they're interested in exploring.
Here were the biggest trends and takeaways:
It's summer festival season! If you're feeling overwhelmed by the dizzying array of offerings, never fear: We've combed through the usual suspects to highlight the shows we most want to catch.
Subscription box services have quickly gained a dedicated following among the fashion and fitness set. And while we'd never say no to a box with new jewelry or workout wear to try, we've been waiting for the subscription model to make its way to the dance world.
Enter barre + bag, a new service that sends a curated set of items to your door each season. Created by Faye Morrow Bell and her daughter Tyler, a student in the pre-professional ballet program at University of North Carolina School of the Arts, this just-launched service offers dance, lifestyle and wellness finds in four themed bags each year: Spring Performance, Summer Study, Back-to-Studio and Nutcracker. Since all the products are specifically made for dancers, everything barre + bag sends you is something you'll actually use, (Plus, it all comes in a bag instead of a box—because what dancer can ever have enough bags?).
barre + bag's Summer Collection
Today, American Ballet Theatre announced a new initiative to foster the development of choreography by company members and freelance dancemakers. Aptly titled ABT Incubator, the program, directed by principal David Hallberg, will give selected choreographers the opportunity to spend two weeks workshopping new dances.
"It has always been my vision to establish a process-oriented hub to explore the directions ballet can forge now and in the future," said Hallberg in a press release from the company. Interested? Here's how you can apply to participate.
Back in January, Chase Johnsey grabbed headlines when he resigned from Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, where his performances had garnered critical acclaim for over a decade, alleging a culture of harassment and discrimination. (An independent investigation launched by the company did not substantiate any legal claims.) Johnsey, who identifies as genderqueer, later told us that he feared his dance career was at an end—where else, as a ballet dancer, would he be allowed to perform traditionally female roles?
But the story didn't end there. After a surprise offer from Tamara Rojo, artistic director of English National Ballet, Johnsey has found a temporary artistic home with the company, joining as a guest at the rank of first artist for its run of The Sleeping Beauty, which continues this week. After weeks of working and rehearsing with the company, last week Johnsey quietly marked a new milestone: He performed with ENB's corps de ballet as one of the ladies in the prince's court.