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.
I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.
"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."
Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.
But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.
There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
When American Ballet Theatre announced yesterday that it would be adding Jane Eyre to its stable of narrative full-lengths, the English nerds in the DM offices (read: most of us) got pretty excited. Cathy Marston's adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's classic novel was created for England's Northern Ballet in 2016, and, based on the clips that have made their way online, it seems like a perfect fit for ABT's Met Opera season.
It also got us thinking about what other classic novels we'd love to see adapted into ballets—but then we realized just how many there already are. From Russian epics to beloved children's books, here are 10 of our favorites that have already made the leap from page to stage. (Special shoutout to Northern Ballet, the undisputed MVP of turning literature into live performance.)
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.