Cover Stories

The most famous Chinese ballerina ever has been at the barre of the San Francisco Ballet since 1995. But TAN YUANYUAN is not ready to hang up her tutu just yet, says HELEN DALLEY

IT'S 8.45AM AND THE hairdryer is blaring as I stare out at the skyline view from Tan Yuanyuan’s suite at the InterContinental Hong Kong, a partner of the Hong Kong Ballet. The dryer cuts out and I’m ushered into the bathroom to speak with China’s most eminent ballerina, who is being primped and preened by an attentive hair and makeup crew for her Prestige Hong Kong cover shoot. The hairstylist wields his brush like a weapon, twirling the ballerina’s long, glossy black hair into curls before unfurling and spraying them into place. The make-up artist simultaneously sweeps determined brushes of beige eyeshadow over Tan’s lids and pencils in her brows before highlighting her cheekbones with blusher. Of medium height, yet almost impossibly slender, Tan is covered by a white dressing gown as her hair and face are tended to. Outside, a row of ballerinaesque dresses (mostly Aolisha by Kev Yiu) are waiting to be stepped into and accentuated by Bulgari jewels.
I pull up a stool and make eye contact with Tan through the bathroom mirror and address my questions as her transformation takes place. Gazing at her delicate features through the mirror, I am reminded of the chilling – albeit imaginary – fight in Black Swan when Nina (Natalie Portman) pushes rival Lily (Mila Kunis) into a mirror and shatters it, then kills her rival with a shard of glass to prevent her from becoming the black swan before she realises she has stabbed herself. Softly spoken and unfailingly polite, Tan definitely seems more Odette than Odile in person, even if she has danced both roles many times during her 17-year career with the San Francisco Ballet. Like Nina, Tan saves her dark side for the stage and confesses that one character she’d still love to play is the title role in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, who abandons plans to enter a convent and steals the money of an old admirer so she can run away with her new young love.
Dancing has been a way of life for Tan since the age of 10, and her father’s wish that she become a doctor, lawyer or engineer began to fade when she entered the Shanghai Dance School at 11. The dancer’s fate was eventually decided on the flip of a coin, which serendipitously dictated that she fulfil her dream of a career on the stage. As an only child growing up in ’80s Shanghai, Tan realises that following her passion was a privilege not extended to many of her peers and is thankful that her mother encouraged and recognised her talent from an early age.
As the mainland’s most successful ballerina – she is the only Chinese dancer ever to reach the rank of principal dancer at a major international ballet company – Tan is revered not only in China but also within the dance world: Dance magazine hailed her as one of the most outstanding ballerinas of the 20th century alongside Galina Ulanova, who Rudolf Nureyev once described as “the world’s number-one ballerina”. In a global economy increasingly driven by the Chinese middle classes, Tan is not only in demand on stage but also commercially, and is a brand ambassador for various watch and jewellery brands. The dancer also appeared in Gap’s autumn 2012 ad campaign, Shine, as part of the Icon Redefined collection, sporting a fitted boyfriend shirt, jeans and blue ballet shoes. With her right leg hoisted high above her head and toe faultlessly pointed, Tan is presented in the ad as a girl who still has a lot of dancing to do, even if she is now in her mid-30s. And why should she abandon the barre just yet? After all, Margot Fonteyn began the greatest artistic partnership of her career at the age of 42 with Nureyev, while Ulanova didn’t retire from the stage until she turned 50.
Tan was in Hong Kong in November for the Hong Kong Ballet’s A Ballet Soirée, a self-proclaimed, “international celebration of ballet” that presented six very different pieces to the audience. The dancer and new partner Vito Mazzeo performed two pas de deux: Lady of the Camellias by Val Caniparoli and Symphonic Dances by Edwaard Liang.
Tan pirouettes onto the stage at the Grand Theatre at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, her chemistry with Mazzeo – Principal Dancer with the San Francisco Ballet since 2011 after just six months as a soloist – feeling natural and unforced, with the two seeming effortlessly attuned to each other’s every movement and gesture despite having danced together for a relatively short time. For their performance of Lady of the Camellias, taken from Act 1 of the full-length ballet, Tan’s Marguerite spurns the advances of her escort for the sincere embraces of the smitten Armand, her true love. The piece couldn’t work without some semblance of romantic chemistry between a ballerina and her partner, which Tan turns on as she gazes adoringly into her Mazzeo’s eyes while her sequins glitter under the lights. The two are a good physical match, too, seamlessly sashaying through the clean, precise choreography of Lady of the Camellias before dancing the more abstract steps from Liang’s Symphonic Dances.
A Ballet Soirée represented Tan’s second performance for the Hong Kong Ballet in 2012. Guest Principal Dancer of the Hong Kong Ballet since 2008, she was here in May to dance that most romantic and dramatic of ballets, Giselle, an experience she describes with a big smile as “wonderful”. But Tan had such a packed schedule last year – one of her busiest to date, she claims – that she barely had time to hang up her tutu in her adopted hometown of San Francisco, with performances at the Bolshoi in Moscow and Sadler’s Wells in London among others.
You debuted Edwaard Liang’s Symphonic Dances at the San Francisco ballet in 2012, which was the choreographer’s first commission for the company. How was it received?
It went down really well [the San Francisco Chronicle praised its “youthful, primitive energy”] and we performed the same pas de deux in Moscow at the Bolshoi as part of its international ballet festival in June. Edwaard Liang is a former soloist for the New York City Ballet and he’s very talented – I worked with him a couple of years ago on another show, Somewhere in Time. The other dance is also brand new for me, pas de deux from Lady of Camellias by Val Caniparoli, which made its world premiere in Hong Kong in November. I’m very excited about it – it’s quite long at 10 minutes and brings challenges both physically and emotionally.
How was 2012 for you? You had shows in Hong Kong, San Francisco, London and Moscow, to name a few…
Oh, it was very good, but extremely busy – much busier than the last few years. We began the ballet season last January and worked through until May. I only had three weeks off, then it was time to prepare for John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid, which we performed at the Hamburg Ballet this June. We were the first ballet company to present the production when it debuted in 2010. It’s become so successful that it was made into a DVD last year – that’s the third time one of my productions has been made into a DVD. [The other two are Othello and The Nutcracker.]
I was also in Hong Kong in May to do Giselle with the Hong Kong Ballet. I’ve danced so many times with the company and it’s always enjoyable. Artistic Director Madeleine Onne has bought some different flavours into the company since she took on the role in 2009. A Ballet Soirée was the first time that Nacho Duato’s Castrati was danced by an Asian company, and the event also offered a world premiere of Dancing with the Wind by Li Jun, principal dancer of the National Ballet of China. Then there was Theme & Variations from George Balanchine – that’s super-hard and presents many challenges for dancers, as they have to switch from classical to contemporary, which takes a lot of discipline.
You’ve mentioned before that China is not as open to contemporary ballet as the West. Is that something you still believe?
Yes, but I think it’s slowly changing, and it’s up to us dancers to let the audience know what we can do, and encourage them to enjoy different things, not just classical. Classical is the base, the all-time favourite of course, but contemporary is also very enjoyable for most dancers. In fact, they may enjoy it more, as they have the freedom to feel the story – I’m thinking of The Little Mermaid compared with Lady of the Camellias. Once you engage the audience, they become more open to seeing new things, so it’s about exposure.
How has your dancing evolved over the last few years?
I’m always hoping to improve as no matter how good you are, there’s always somebody better out there. But right now it’s not about dancing better than someone else but dancing better than I did the day before. After completing my basic dance training in China I was lucky to get a scholarship to Germany, then six months later, the San Francisco Ballet accepted me, so I’m grateful for that, and perhaps I was lucky, too. But I work hard. Some people think dancers only use the body, that ballet is not intellectual, but I think it’s the opposite. You need to research the characters so you can bring them to life.
Prima ballerina Natalia Makarova has been a mentor of yours. What can you tell us about that relationship?
I just admire her so much. She had already retired when I began to dance, but I saw some old footage, which was amazing. She’s so petite but on stage she’s like a giant: even if you’re sitting in the last row at the theatre, you get a sense of her presence. She had such chemistry on stage with Mikhail Baryshnikov when they did Giselle with the American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1977. I’d say that was the night of the last century.
I got chance to work with her, which was incredible [Makarova produced Paquita in 2002 at the San Francisco Ballet]. She’s very particular, very precise on the training and steps, like all Russians, but I consider myself very lucky to have worked with her. In April last year, she invited me to one of her galas, where she received a lifetime art achievement for dance. She invited me to do the White Swan pas de deux at Lincoln Center. I had a new partner, Vito, who I’d never danced with before and it was bloody hard – I don’t think I’ve ever trained so hard in my life. I did two steps and had to stop, because she was like, “This is not right,” so then I tried again and again… I was exhausted after one hour but it was of huge benefit on my dancing. To get to work with my idol was just great. She taught me to be very articulate in my arms [the port de bras] and ultra-precise in the footwork and understand what you need to adjust. It’s an ongoing process, even for an experienced dancer like me. After the performance, she said to me, “Very good, not bad, but it can be better.” I think that was a compliment coming from her.
Your father wanted you to become a doctor, lawyer or engineer.
Yes, he wanted me to have a stable job [laughs].
Do you think you could have followed that path?
I don’t think I would have been too bad as a doctor, but those were never jobs that I aspired to do. When I was young I wanted to be a fashion designer. I’m still a big fan of fashion and beautiful things.
Your talent was recognised at an early age. How important do you think that was for your career?
I joined the Shanghai Dance School a year later than my classmates at the age of 11 and in the beginning, it was hard for me because I wasn’t that good. I was behind everyone else and didn’t enjoy it. I think things began to change when I was around 14, when my teacher trained me really hard prior to a competition. That’s when something changed inside of me. I thought, “If I don’t try really hard now and push myself, maybe I’ll never make any progress.” After the competition, I took first place nationally in China, which led on to entering international competitions. That was a real turning point.
You’ve been with the San Francisco Ballet since 1995. Do you think you would have been a different ballerina if you’d danced elsewhere?
Yes, I think so, although it’s hard to imagine and you never know until it happens. The company has given me great opportunities to work with international choreographers, and the repertoire they put out is very diverse. While we may stage more than 100 performances of classic shows like The Nutcracker annually, there’s also a focus on the contemporary by working with choreographers like Edwaard Liang and doing performances by George Balanchine. Since I joined the company, there have been plenty of opportunities to help me be everything I can be.
You must know the San Francisco audiences really well now after being there since 1995.
Oh yes, and they’re very loyal; some of our regulars will book twice to watch certain performances. I’ve built up a great following over the decades and really appreciate the support. After all these years, they’re still coming, and there are many Chinese faces in the audience.
Can you see yourself dancing for many years to come?
As a dancer, you have to listen to your body to know what is the next step. It’s difficult to stay on top of your game with the constant practising and performing. It depends on the programme, but I usually dance for no less than three to four hours a day, with 90 minutes of that devoted to classical training.
Where do you see yourself in five years’ time – will you still be involved in ballet?
I will probably still be doing something related to ballet, but nothing’s settled yet. Hopefully, I can become an inspiration and mentor to other young girls just as dancers like Makarova have inspired me. As soon as my schedule allows, I’d love to work on some new creations with the Hong Kong Ballet, as I’ve had so many positive experiences working with them.


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