Haunting Beauty

Eric Tomasson

SFB's Yuan Yuan Tan blends glittering technique with subtle artistry to create her stage magic.

PC Matthew Karas

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.


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Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.


Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

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