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.
Adji Cissoko has the alchemical blend of willowy limbs and earthy musicality you expect from a dancer in Alonzo King LINES Ballet. But she also has something more—a joy in dancing that makes every step feel immediate.
"She has this soulful quality of an ancient spirit coming through her body," says LINES chief executive officer Muriel Maffre, a former prima ballerina with San Francisco Ballet. "She's fearless, which is fun to work with," says artistic director Alonzo King. "I don't know how to put it into words— she's herself."
So you're on layoff—or, let's be real, you just don't feel like going to the studio—and you decide you're going to take class from home. Easy enough, right? All you need is an empty room and some music tracks on your iPhone, right?
Wrong. Anyone who has attempted this feat can tell you that taking class at home—or even just giving yourself class in general—is easier said than done. But with the right tools, it's totally doable—and can be totally rewarding.
When Jan Fabre's troupe Troubleyn presents his Mount Olympus: To glorify the cult of tragedy (a 24 hour performance) at NYU Skirball tomorrow it does so under a heavy cloud of controversy.
Fabre is a celebrated Belgian multidisciplinary artist who has been honored as Grand Officer in the Order of the Crown, one of the country's highest honors. His visual art has been displayed at the Louvre and at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. According to The New York Times, his dance company, Troubleyn, receives about $1 million a year from the Belgian government.
But in an open letter posted to Belgian magazine Rekto Verso just a few months ago, 20 of his company's current and former dancers outline a horrific culture of sexual harassment, bullying and coercion. This comes on the heels of similar accusations at New York City Ballet and Paris Opèra Ballet.
It's contest time! You could win your choice of Apolla Shocks (up to 100 pairs) for your whole studio! Apolla Performance believes dancers are artists AND athletes—wearing Apolla Shocks helps you be both! Apolla Shocks are footwear for dancers infused with sports science technology while maintaining a dancer's traditions and lines. They provide support, protection and traction that doesn't exist anywhere else for dancers, helping them dance longer and stronger. Apolla wants to get your ENTIRE studio protected and supported in Apolla Shocks! How? Follow these steps:
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:
Earlier this week, New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck gave us some major onstage makeup inspiration while attending an offstage event. While walking the red carpet at the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund gala, Peck's beauty look was still perfectly suited for the ballet with her top knot hairstyle and stage-worthy red lip. Peck's makeup artist for the night, Daniel Duran, shared his exact breakdown on the look, working exclusively with beauty brand Chantecaille. So, whether you're in need of a waterproof brow pencil, volumizing mascara or long-lasting red lip this Nutcracker season, we've got you covered.
There's a new tool that lets amputee ballet dancers perform on pointe. As reported in Dezeen, an architecture and design magazine, industrial designer Jae-Hyun An has created a prosthesis he calls the "Marie . T" (after Marie Taglioni, of course) that allows dancers with below-the-knee amputations to do pointe work.
A carbon fiber calf absorbs shock while a stainless steel toe and rubber platform allow a dancer to both turn and grip the floor to maintain balance. What it doesn't allow the dancer to do? Roll down to demi-pointe or flat.
Former chair of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts dance department Linda Tarnay died on Tuesday, November 6. Her wish was to have her ashes interred in the columbarium at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery—the site of Danspace Project and just a few blocks away from the Tisch dance building.
Before her 35 years of teaching at NYU, Tarnay was a founding member of Dance Theater Workshop. She performed with choreographers like Anna Sokolow, Phyllis Lamhut and Jamie Cunningham. She also started her own company, Linda Tarnay and Dancers, and was an artist-in-residence at The Yard.
Margaret Selby never dreamed that her passion for dance would lead her everywhere from working on live TV specials like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade to producing hip-hop musical Jam on the Groove, from Columbia Artists Management, Inc., to public TV's "Great Performances: Dance in America."
Now, through her company Selby/Artists MGMT, she helps clients like Dorrance Dance, MOMIX and Pacific Northwest Ballet navigate the behind-the-scenes elements that get their work onstage, like booking tours, marketing and planning upcoming seasons.
According to the new documentary DANSEUR, 85% of males who study dance in the United States are bullied or harassed. A quote in the film from Dr. Doug Risner, faculty member at Wayne State University, states, "If this scope of bullying occurred in any activity other than dance, it would be considered a public health crisis by the CDC."
So why is it allowed to persist in ballet? And why aren't we talking about it more? These are the questions that DANSEUR seeks to answer. But primarily consisting of dance footage and interviews with male dancers like ABT's James Whiteside, Houston Ballet's Harper Watters and Boston Ballet's Derek Dunn, the film only addresses these issues superficially, with anecdotes about individual experiences and generalizations about what it's like to be a male dancer.
When you're unable to dance, it's easy to feel like you're falling behind and losing out on opportunities. But this can be a time to reset your body and come back even stronger, says Ilana Goldman, BFA program director at Florida State University's School of Dance. "Some of the greatest leaps I made in my technique happened because of injuries," she says. "Learning how to deal with them is part of being a professional dancer."
Dancers are human, which means they're bound to make mistakes from time to time, both on and off the stage. But what happens when those mistakes burn bridges? In an industry so small, is it possible for choreographers and performers to recover?In a moment of vulnerability, three-time Emmy Award winning choreographer Mia Michaels opened up to Dance Magazine about some of the bridges she herself has burned, the lengths she's gone to in order to rebuild and the peace she's made with the new direction her career has taken because of them. —Haley Hilton
Are auditions rigged? Sometimes I see mediocre dancers make it into a company, and I just don't get it. The audition process is unnerving for me without feedback or any understanding of the rules.
—Madison, Santa Monica, CA
Raise your hand if you've received bad advice from well-meaning friends or family (or strangers, tbh) who don't know anything about what it really takes to be a dancer.
*everyone raises hands*
Sometimes it's even dance insiders whose advice can send you down the wrong path. We've been asking pros about the worst advice they've ever received in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and rounded up some of the best answers:
Where in the world is Miko Fogarty? Just three years ago, she seemed unstoppable. After being featured in the 2011 ballet documentary First Position, she became a teenage social-media star, winning top prizes at competitions in Moscow and Varna and at Youth American Grand Prix, and dancing in galas around the world. Last most of us heard, it was 2015 and she had just joined the corps of Birmingham Royal Ballet. A year later, she dropped off the ballet radar.
Turns out Fogarty, now 21, was taking time off to reevaluate her life, including the role she wanted ballet to play in it. She is now starting her junior year as a biology major at University of California—Berkeley and is considering going to medical school. (Her brother and fellow First Position subject, 19-year-old Jules, is a junior in the Berkeley economics department.) On the side she teaches private ballet lessons and gives master classes, and is the part-time conservatory director at San Jose Dance International, a new school in the San Francisco Bay Area led by artistic director Yu Xin. We caught up with her by phone.
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.
In dance, pushing through pain is often glorified. Dancers can be reluctant to take time off when sick or injured for fear of missing out on opportunities. It can feel even harder to justify when the pain isn't physical. Though it's becoming more commonly acknowledged that mental health is just as important as physical health, a dance career doesn't leave much time to address mental or emotional issues.
But dancers need to take care of their mental well-being to be able to perform at their best, says Catherine Drury, a licensed clinical social worker for The Dancers' Resource at The Actors Fund. So what can you do if you need a mental health day?
The fall performance season continues at breakneck speed with everything from an international ballet company making its U.S. debut to a retrospective on one of New York City's most iconic dancemakers—not to mention more than a few intriguing new works. Here's what we've got pencilled in.
Yabin Wang converts movement into liquid that spills across the stage. A celebrity in her home country of China, this choreographer, dancer and actress has helped to pioneer modern dance there by blending Chinese classical and contemporary dance. Wang's international career was kick-started in 2010 at American Dance Festival, where she returned this summer to perform on a shared program with Michelle Dorrance, Aparna Ramaswamy, Rhapsody James and Camille A. Brown. She has also worked with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui on Genesis and was commissioned by English National Ballet to create a piece for its Olivier Award–winning She Said program. This month, she is back stateside for the U.S. premiere of her Moon Opera, Nov. 3 in Pittsburgh.
It's the casting news we didn't know we needed until we heard it. Ever since it was announced that Wayne McGregor would be choreographing the new film adaptation of CATS, we've been anxiously waiting to hear whether any recognizable names from the dance world would be joining the A-list cast (which, in case you missed it, already includes Jennifer Hudson, Sir Ian McKellan, Taylor Swift and James Corden). But never in our wildest dreams did we think that a Royal Ballet principal would be the first dancer to sign on.
The wait for Disney's reimagining of The Nutcracker is over. Although The Nutcracker and The Four Realms is not a full-length ballet, woven into the plot is a five-minute performance by megastars Misty Copeland and Sergei Polunin alongside 18 supporting dancers, with a CGI Mouse King moved by jookin sensation Lil Buck (aka Charles Riley). Royal Ballet artist in residence Liam Scarlett led the film's choreography in his first major motion picture experience. "It was a call I didn't expect to get," says Scarlett. "I really am the biggest Disney fan, so I couldn't believe it!"