RAISING THE BARRE
On June 19, China’s most acclaimed ballet dancer Tan Yuanyuan completed the last of many tasks her eponymous ballet studio had set out to do when she launched a book titled Zujian Shangde Yishu (The Art on the Toe: An Introduction to Nine Leading Ballet Companies in the World) at Hotel Equatorial in Shanghai.
Tan, who has been dancing with the San Francisco Ballet for more than 20 years, is the only Chinese dancer to ever attain the rank of principal at a major US ballet company.
The book documents the history and achievements of nine of the world’s leading ballet companies and contains insightful interviews with various artistic directors and renowned choreographers.
Liu Wenguo, deputy director of the dramatists association in Shanghai, said that it was largely because of the trust and support Tan has won through multiple collaborations with these established companies and choreographers that the publication of such a book was possible.
Qian Shijin, who used to be a programmer at the Shanghai Grand Theatre, said that while ballet started about 400 years ago in France, it was only introduced to China in the 20th century. As such, it is remarkable that the country has been able to produce a ballerina such as Tan.
“She is without doubt China’s pride. After all, she is the only Chinese ballet dancer to be featured on the cover of Time magazine.”
Born in 1977, Tan grew up in a traditional neighborhood in Shanghai’s Hongkou district. She still fondly remembers her childhood days when people would spend their summer evenings eating salted soybeans and watermelons to beat the heat.
Tan first learned about ballet when she watched legendary Russian dancer Galina Ulanova perform in Swan Lake on a tiny blackand-white television that was placed along the lane outside her home.
“She was so light. She was flying like a feather … I tried to imitate her by standing on my toe, but it hurt badly,” Tan wrote in her 2013 autobiography Ballet and Me.
As a child, Tan enjoyed being outdoors and was exceptionally agile. She loved climbing trees, picking figs and catching cicadas. She first learned how to dance in pre-school where her teachers would rave about how she was born to do ballet. She was later approached by the Shanghai Ballet School.
However, Tan’s father wanted her to become a doctor instead. Her mother, on the other hand, loved ballet and once even harbored the ambition of becoming a dancer. The latter naturally supported her daughter’s wish to enter dance school.
Ling Guiming, the head of the Shanghai Ballet School at that time, also tried to convince the father of his daughter’s rare talent. Ling said that the school’s gates would always be open to the girl.
The parents reached an impasse regarding their daughter’s future and decide to resolve the matter with the flip of a coin. Tan’s mother won the toss.
A tough journey to fame
Despite having the ideal physique, teachers at the ballet school criticized Tan for lacking strength in her movements. They even said she was “as soft as noodle”.
“I used to cry a lot. One of the teachers, Lin Meifang, gave me two choices, saying that I can either continue crying or train harder. I chose the latter,” said Tan.
It is no secret that the training routines for ballet dancers can be extremely difficult and repetitive. While Tan does not regret her career choice, her father thinks that she has paid a heavy price for her passion, pointing out the numerous injuries suffered over the years and how she never got to enjoy her childhood because of the hectic training and performance schedules.
In 1991, Tan won her first medal in an international arena when she finished second in the Helsinki Ballet competition. The next year, she won the Nijinsky award at the All Japan International Ballet Competition in Nagoya. The prize, which was named after the legendary Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, had previously been exclusive to adult male dancers.
The 1992 International Ballet Competition in Paris marked a turning point in Tan’s career. She was ini- tially overwhelmed with stage fright because the theater floor of the Paris Opera House where the competition took place had a 15-degree tilt, a design characteristic aimed at allowing audiences to appreciate the feet movements of ballet danc- ers.
Tan recalled how Lin “gave me a kick on the back” before sending her onto the stage. This seemingly hardline approach worked wonders. Tan danced so well that the 82-year-old Galina Ulanova, who was one of the judges, gave her a perfect score.
Tan later won a scholarship and moved to Stuttgart, Germany, to further her ballet training. During her time in Germany, Helgi Tomasson, the artistic director and principal choreographer at the San Francisco Ballet, got in touch with Tan. He told her that she would become the company’s youngest solo dancer should she accept his invitation.
In 1995, Tan joined the San Francisco Ballet. Just two years later, at the tender age of 18, Tan became the company’s solo dancer. Tan was only 20 years old when she was promoted to principal dancer.
“When I saw Yuanyuan perform all those years ago, I knew she had a very rare gift,” said Tomasson. “What makes her so special is her work ethic, her ability to absorb a dizzying range of styles and choreography, and her capacity to perform at the highest level of excellence.”
Tomasson added that he was especially impressed with her performance in John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid which premiered in 2010.
“Yuanyuan was indeed the mer- maid: tortured, determined and utterly vulnerable. At the end of her performance that night, she was not the only one holding back tears,” he said.
Tan also considers this particular performance to be among the most memorable because the story served as a reflection of her journey in ballet.
“I felt I was the mermaid. I fell in love with ballet because of its beauty, but didn’t realize it was such a cruel art, that there was great pain with every step I took. It was like walking on blades. Sometimes I hated the pain and attempted to run away, but the more the pain, the deeper my love for this art form,” Tan said.
“Before the performance, I thought I had already arrived at the pinnacle of my dancing career. After the show, however, I felt that I still had not achieved my full potential.”
Tan Yuanyuan, San Francisco Ballet principal dancer
No time for a breather
Though she is already 40, Tan has no plans to retire. In fact, her itinerary still seems as packed as it was decades ago.
Publishing the book was just one of numerous things Tan has been busy with since setting up the Tan Yuanyuan Ballet Studio in Shanghai in 2015. Apart from having to manage the studio, Tan and her colleagues have also organized forums and master classes. Despite her packed schedule, Tan still managed to perform in 70 shows by the San Francisco Ballet last year. She also revealed that she is currently working on creating a new neo-classical ballet production of a Chinese story.
“I work day and night. I am one of those people who will always complete what they say they will do,” said Tan.
During last year’s China Shanghai International Art Festival, the Tan Yuanyuan Ballet Studio hosted an international forum on choreography alongside the Shanghai Theatre Academy. During the forum, Feng Shuangbai, head of the China Dancers’ Association, pointed out that China’s dancers generally lack the ability to improvise, a result of the traditional training regime that focused largely on perfectly copying the movements illustrated by the teacher.
“When dancers are told to improvise, you would find that everyone ends up creating similar moves. The traditional pedagogy has been limited to imitation and this has led to the lack of creativity in Chinese ballet choreography,” said Feng.
To address this problem, Tan invited two fellow dancers from the San Francisco Ballet and French choreographer Medhi Walerski to Shanghai in June.
These experts conducted master classes for 34 students, dancers and choreographers who came from the Shanghai Theatre Academy, the Shanghai Song and Dance Troupe, and the Shanghai Opera House dance group.
Tan said that these classes provided participants with “an eye-opening experience” that showcased dancing as a self-expression instead of a set of movements.
Liu, who used to be a leading member in the organizing committee of the China Shanghai International Art Festival, lavished praise on Tan for her valuable contributions to the art and dance scenes in the city.
“She always manages to participate in the festival as well as other major art events in Shanghai. Yuanyuan is an international ballet star and a national treasure. She is also a beloved daughter of Shanghai,” he said.
Born in 1977, Tan Yuanyuan grew up in a traditional neighborhood in Shanghai’s Hongkou district.
Age is just a number: 40-year-old Tan Yuanyuan has no intention to retire and is currently working to produce a new neo-classical show.