NYCB's Georgina Pazcoguin on Her New Initiative to Eliminate Asian Stereotypes in Ballet
As conversations in the ballet world about race and representation have opened up in the past few years, its most beloved holiday tradition, The Nutcracker, has come under scrutiny as well. Last year New York City Ballet made changes to its second act Chinese Tea variation, removing elements of racial caricature from both the costume and makeup and the choreography.
NYCB soloist Georgina Pazcoguin, who is part Filipino, was one of the voices fighting for that change. This year, as companies and schools worldwide are gearing up for Nutcracker season, Pazcoguin, along with former dancer and arts administrator Phil Chan, is back with a new campaign. Final Bow For Yellowface is an online platform dedicated to educating companies and schools on how to veer away from offensive Asian stereotypes (yellowface) and providing resources on how to make those changes. The site also lets readers join dance world luminaries including Virginia Johnson, Julie Kent, Adam Sklute, Troy Schumacher and Christopher Wheeldon in signing a pledge to end the practice of yellowface onstage. We touched base with Pazcoguin to hear about how this initiative came to be, and what she and Chan have in the works for the future.
How long has Final Bow for Yellowface been in the works?
The idea for the site came about following New York City Ballet's diversity initiative. I helped plant a seed that turned into a meaningful conversation last November. Former director Peter Martins invited Phil in to discuss how to modify NYCB's Tea variation to be less insensitive. We thought, if NYCB is open to change, why not everyone else? The pledge is a way for us to consolidate conversations that are already happening in communities all across America and lead by example. Over the past year, we have reached out to many major ballet companies to start conversations about Nutcracker (and other ballets that include caricatures of Asians).
Pazcoguin and Chan note on their site that the Chinese dance is often the only Nutcracker variation in which dancers are asked to wear makeup and wigs intended to make them look like members of a race other than their own. NYCB's original tea variation, pictured here, featured wigs and makeup that create a caricature. Click through to see the redesign. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
What are your thoughts on NYCB's changes to the Tea variation?
While the variation has removed the caricature, it now lacks some of the character. I think there is opportunity to explore more character development, but in a respectful way. It is the Kingdom of the Sweets after all; why not lean into a more confectionary direction?
Phil and I worked with dance historian Doug Fullington at Pacific Northwest Ballet, who was able to go back to the Stepanov notation from the early 20th century and recreate the original Chinese dance. To see it on live bodies, even on film, was very powerful for me. The variation is fun, spritely, crisp, wickedly difficult and dazzling. The best part was there was not a whiff of caricature at all. It just demonstrated that so much of what we have put into the ballet over the years, like the problematic "Fu Manchu" depictions, has come from outside the original choreography. Seeing the playfulness in the original helped me regain my faith in the ballet.
Pazcoguin as Dewdrop in NYCB's "Nutcracker." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
What do you think it means to have a dancer spearheading this campaign? How are you using your personal experience to make a difference?
I think it delivers remarkable impact. Dancers aren't accustomed to using their voices to express themselves. There seems to be this idea that our power is in the images we create with our bodies, and that our opinions aren't as important or articulate. This is clearly a falsehood.
I know what it's like to be the outlier in the rehearsal room. That's where my branding "The Rogue Ballerina" came from: recognizing my differences, be it the shape of my body or the shade of my skin, which others have seen as negative, and spinning them into positive attributes. I've been with the company for 18 years, so I have seen it change dramatically. The heightened interest in diversity in dance, and the rising profiles of so many other dancers of color had me asking questions about my own experience with race. Yellowface is very much a part of that conversation for me on a personal level.
If you could send a call to action to dancers, what would it be?
Don't be afraid to start discussions with your teachers, studio owners, and artistic directors about yellowface or other cultural representations in your local Nutcracker. I doubt that anyone is intentionally trying to offend anyone or make anyone uncomfortable, but rather that there's a lack of awareness. Start with compassion, and have a constructive conversation about how to make your production more inclusive. If folks out there need help getting the conversation started, we have a lot of resources on the page.
San Franzisko Ballett Der Nussknacker youtu.be
Pazcoguin and Chan note that San Francisco Ballet's Chinese variation is a strong example of how to respect and evoke Chinese culture without falling into offensive stereotypes.
What's next for Final Bow for Yellowface?
Phil and I focused in on Asian culture, but there are so many other caricatures that could be respectfully tweaked while maintaining the original integrity of the work. Applying these updates only enhances a masterpiece and allows all to enjoy it. There are a lot of conversations within Nutcracker around the Arabian variation that are also in this vein. We will have to start asking ourselves about some of the 19th century warhorses like Le Corsaire and La Bayadère, as well. And there are still some issues with blackface in Petrushka and Othello. I'm hoping my own company will review its American and Asian portrayals of Aurora's suitors in our upcoming production of Sleeping Beauty.
I think our larger goal is already being accomplished. Whether companies are signing on to our pledge or not, we are talking about these issues now as a larger national dance community, and the conversations that have been happening across the country have been consolidated into positive action. We realize this is a multi-year conversation, and are happy to be a resource to any companies who want to make sure they are portraying Asians respectfully. Then when it's time to put up the Christmas lights and entertain our children with holiday tradition, we do so with the respect inherent in a global citizen's lens.
Even if you haven't heard her name, you've almost certainly seen the work of commercial choreographer James Alsop. Though she's made award-winning dances for Beyoncé ("Run the World," anyone?) and worked with stars like Lady GaGa and Janelle Monae, Alsop's most recent project may be her most powerful: A moving music video for Everytown for Gun Safety, directed by Ezra Hurwitz and featuring students from the National Dance Institute.
We caught up with Alsop for our "Spotlight" series:
I want to make an apology because, in my opening speech at the Dance Magazine Awards on Monday, I inadvertently left out one awardee. I said, "Tonight we are honoring four outstanding dance artists who have contributed to the dance field over time." But then I named only three. How could I have forgotten Lourdes Lopez?!?!
We had all been hearing about Lourdes's taking the helm at Miami City Ballet with grace, intelligence, compassion and new ideas. I was planning to say, "Lourdes Lopez, who has brought new life to Miami City Ballet" because I thought that would cover a lot of ground. (My only quibble with myself was whether to say "brought new life" or "gave new life.")
Each year, The New York Times Magazine shines a spotlight on who they deem to be the best actors of the year in its Great Performers series. But, what we're wondering is, can they dance? Thankfully, the NYT Mag recruited none other than Justin Peck to put them to the test.
Peck choreographed and directed a series of 10 short dance films, placing megastars in everyday situations: riding the subway, getting out of bed in the morning, waiting at a doctor's office.
Today, we are thrilled to announce the honorees of the 2018 Dance Magazine Awards. A tradition dating back to 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards celebrate the living legends who have made a lasting impact on dance. This year's honorees include:
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On busy performance days, international guest artist Joy Womack always makes time for one activity after class and rehearsals: a nap. "I like to feel well-rested when I need to be in the spotlight at night, not dragging at the end of the day," she says. "It helps me recover and refocus."
With her earbuds tuned to a guided meditation app, she can squeeze in a nap wherever she needs to. "One time I even took a nap on the floor of the tour bus in Siberia," she says. "Dancers can sleep anywhere."
Joy Womack prioritizes napping before a show. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe magazine.
As research has revealed the benefits of short daytime naps, power-napping advice has proliferated, and more dancers are choosing to include a nap in their pre-performance routines. Approaching napping strategically will help you get the most out of an afternoon snooze.
On Monday night, a memorial was held at Riverside Church to honor the life and achievements of Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder Arthur Mitchell. With nearly three months to process and grieve (Mitchell passed away on September 19) the atmosphere was not that of mourning as much as reflection, reverence and admiration for who he was, what he built and what remains. (Watch the full livestream here.)
The church filled with family, artistic friends, fans and admirers. What was most gratifying was the volume of DTH alumni from the school, company and organization who traveled across the globe to pay their respects, from founding members to present dancers and students. The house of worship was filled with the sentiment of a family reunion. As Mitchell was sent home, it was a homecoming for many who have not shared air together in decades. What was palpable was the authentic bonds that Dance Theatre of Harlem and Mitchell fostered in all.
Fans of the sublime English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams were probably excited to see her image splashed across the company's website in a promotional image for an upcoming production of Swan Lake.
But those who took a closer look were met with a disappointing reality: Adams, who is the only black woman in the company, is not listed on the principal casting sheet for the production.
Gennadi Nedvigin is not the only early tenure director breaking out a new production of The Nutcracker this season.
We love The Nutcracker as much as the next person, but that perennial holiday classic isn't the only thing making its way onstage this month. Here are five alternatives that piqued our editors' curiosity.
The Nutcracker is synonymous with American ballet. So when Gennadi Nedvigin took the helm at Atlanta Ballet in 2016, a new version of the holiday classic was one of his top priorities. This month, evidence of two years' worth of changes will appear when the company unwraps its latest version at Atlanta's Fox Theatre Dec. 8–24. Choreographed by Yuri Possokhov and produced on a larger-than-ever scale for Atlanta, the new ballet represents Nedvigin's big ambitions.
Ballet Hispánico returns to the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem with its full-length ballet, CARMEN.maquia. Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano has reenvisioned the story of Carmen to emphasize Don José, the man who falls in love with Carmen, suffers because of her infidelity, then murders her in a "fit of passion." Their duets are filled with all the sensuality, jealousy and violence you could wish for—in a totally contemporary dance language.
Sansano's previous piece for Ballet Hispánico, El Beso, bloomed with a thousand playful and witty ways of expressing desire. He has a knack for splicing humor into romance.
Not being able to attend the in-person audition at your top college can feel like the end of the world. But while it's true that going to the live audition is ideal, you can still make the best out of sending a video. Here are some of the perks:
It's become a colloquialism—or, we admit, a cliche—to say that dance can heal.
But with a new initiative launched by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doctors in the U.K. will soon be able to prescribe dance classes—along with art, music, sports, gardening and more—for patients suffering from conditions as various as dementia, lung problems and mental health issues.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)
The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:
"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."
Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.
What does it mean to be human? Well, many things. But if you were at the Dance Magazine Awards last night, you could argue that to be human is to dance. Speeches about the powerful humanity of our art form were backed up with performances by incredible dancers hailing from everywhere from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to Miami City Ballet.
Misty Copeland started off the celebration. A self-professed "Dance Magazine connoisseur from the age of 13," she not only spoke about how excited she was to be in a room full of dancers, but also—having just come from Dance Theatre of Harlem's memorial for Arthur Mitchell—what she saw as their duty: "We all in this room hold a responsibility to use this art for good," she said. "Dance unifies, so let's get to work."
That sentiment was repeated throughout the night.
Choreographer Val Caniparoli started his ballet career by performing in Lew Christensen's The Nutcracker with San Francisco Ballet in 1971. Today, he still performs with SFB as Drosselmeir, in the company's current version by Helgi Tomasson.
It takes Caniparoli a lot of concentration to stick to the choreography.
"I have the four versions that I choreographed of the role in my head, plus the original I danced for years by Lew," he says. "That's a lot of versions to keep straight."
A list of Clara alumnae from Radio City's Christmas Spectacular reads like a star-studded, international gala program: Tiler Peck and Brittany Pollack of New York City Ballet (and Broadway), Meaghan Grace Hinkis of The Royal Ballet, Whitney Jensen of Norwegian National Ballet and more. Madison Square Garden's casting requirements for the role are simple: The dancer should be 4' 10" and under, appear to be 14 years old or younger and have strong ballet technique and pointework.
The unspoken requisite? They need abundant tenacity at a very young age.
When I read last month that Jessica Lang Dance had announced its farewell, I'm sure I wasn't the only dancer surprised. In the same way that many of us, when reading an obituary, instinctively look for the cause of death, I searched for a reason for the company's unexpected folding. It was buried in the fifth paragraph of The New York Times article:
Her manager, Margaret Selby, said in an interview that Jessica Lang Dance's closing showed how difficult it is to keep a small dance company running these days. "You have to raise so much money, the smaller companies don't have enough staff, and Jessica was running the company for the last seven years without a day off," she said. "She wants to focus on creative work."
Whereas the announcement itself may have come as a shock, the root cause certainly doesn't. All of us in the field are familiar with the conditions to which Selby refers. But that these problems can topple the success of a company like Lang's, which boasts seven years of national and international touring that include commissions from Jacob's Pillow and The Joyce, among others, is sobering.