China Daily (Hong Kong) - - ART -

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.”

Hum­ble be­gin­nings

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.

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