For five years now, Final Bow for Yellowface has been working to rid ballet of offensive Asian stereotypes. But the organization's goals have always gone deeper than simply updating costumes or makeup. "It's about what is Asianness onstage—who is given authority, what is considered 'high art'? And how that translates to the daily lives of Asian people outside the theater," says co-founder Phil Chan.
For many in the dance community, last week's shooting in Atlanta that killed eight people, including six Asian women, sparked some deep introspection about the dehumanizing effects of the stereotypes shown on our stages. And Final Bow is harnessing the surge of solidarity that's come about in response.
At a virtual "teahouse" gathering on Sunday night for Asian artists and allies, Chan and his co-founder Georgina Pazcoguin (aka "The Rogue Ballerina") shared a series of initiatives that Final Bow is spearheading to lift up Asian artists in dance.
"We've been talking to Asian leaders for years now about building something bigger," says Chan, "but after what happened last week, it seemed like time to say, 'Let's take some action now as a group.' We're going to get moving, and we're going to turn this anger, this sadness, this frustration, this hope, all those feelings, let's channel it into something productive and good for all of us—and for dance."
For starters, Final Bow is asking all ballet companies to commit to hiring an Asian choreographer for a mainstage production by 2025 (prioritizing Asian women when possible). Because, as Pazcoguin and Chan point out, while companies are doing stories set in Asian locations and with Asian characters season after season—La Bayadère, Bugaku, Le Corsaire—they are rarely hiring Asian choreographers to tell their own stories.
For Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month in May, Final Bow will be turning its Instagram page into something of a virtual choreographic festival. Every day it will feature a different Asian choreographer, including footage of their work and an interview—conveniently highlighting 31 artists companies can consider commissioning.
The biggest project they're launching is a choreographic incubator that will produce brand-new ballets entirely by Asian creatives—from choreography and scores to costumes and lighting. Final Bow is currently building a database of Asian creatives and working on raising funds to commission these works. Edwaard Liang, artistic director at BalletMet, and Jessica Tong, associate artistic director at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, have already been partnering with Final Bow on this effort, and Stanton Welch, artistic director of Houston Ballet, recently committed to becoming a commissioning partner as well.
"Ballet is ripe for innovation and change," says Pazcoguin. "This focus on building Asian stories from the ground up by Asian creatives is part of how we keep this art form we love alive." Chan adds that bringing in these new voices will keep ballet from becoming just "a cute time-capsule art form."
So what can members of the dance community interested in furthering Final Bow's mission do to help out? "They can give us money," Chan says, with a chuckle. "All of our funds go to paying Asian artists." They also need all sorts of help—marketing, grant writing, public relations, board members. "We need feet on the ground," says Pazcoguin.
For allies who want to show support to their Asian colleagues processing recent tragedies, Pazcoguin suggests keeping it simple. "Don't center yourself in the reach out and explain why you did this or that," she says. "I can only speak for myself, but what's truly had the most impact for me is when people have just asked, 'Hey, how are you?' "