Yuan Yuan Tan in John Neumeier's The Little Mermaid. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

Yuan Yuan Tan on Fate, Feeling Behind & the Joy of the Creative Process

I think fate brought me to dance. My mom had dreamed of becoming a dancer, but was discouraged by my grandfather. At 10 years old I ended up being one of a couple thousand kids to be selected to audition at Shanghai Dance School. I had all the criteria they wanted.

But my parents disagreed whether or not I should pursue ballet. So I didn't start until one year later. I felt behind. I had never seen ballet and had no idea what my classmates were doing. But when you enter the school, you basically have a job already. You graduate and then go straight into a company, just like in Russia. So I never questioned that ballet was my path.

Today, dance shapes who I am in every way. I've learned that the mind is so strong—and that I am quite stubborn. At one point I had labral tears in both hips. The doctor suggested arthroscopic surgery. He said the chance of recovery was 25 percent and it could take up to two years. When I understood that there would be no guarantees, I refused to do the surgery. I rested for two weeks, then I retrained myself to know what my body needed. About a month later, I returned to the stage.

One experience that really shaped me as a dancer was working with John Neumeier on The Little Mermaid in 2011. John is not only a great choreographer, but also such a mentor and acting coach. Every step he creates has a meaning. The Little Mermaid changed my perspective as a performer—he brought out so much artistry in me. As a dancer, the final joy is onstage, but the process is also such a joy. Seeing the changes in the studio little by little, I think that's beautiful.

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