In Ballet, Where are all the Asian swans?


I saw the most amazing thing last weekend. At the San Francisco Ballet‘s Giselle at the War Memorial Opera House on a rainy evening a few days ago, I saw the Shanghai-born ballerina Yuan Yuan Tan dance the lead romantic ballerina part of Giselle who falls in love with the a prince.

Let me tell you why this is so momentous for me. Since I first watched the Nutcracker ballet when I was 7…I have been an avid ballet fan. I have watched hundreds of ballets; the last 3 years I spent in New York City was spent, during the ballet season, going to see the ballet 1-3 times a week (Grad school? What grad school?). The few Asian dancers on stage always danced like this or looked like this… or at the very least, in the back, holding roses and waving them back and forth. I had never seen Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Juliet or Giselle danced by an Asian ballerina.

Racial discrimination has been surmised by many in the ballet world, but because it’s such a closed system, it’s difficult to see exactly what the directors think or ballet dancers are told in private when they are hired in a company. This New York Times article “Where are all the black swans?” discusses the absence of African-American dancers in ballet companies; but as an Asian-American audience member, it makes me think, “Where are the dancers that look like me?” Especially in the New York City companies (NYC Ballet & ABT), there has never been an Asian ballerina in the highest rank of the company, the rank of principal. The ballet world is really difficult, I do understand…but it’s hard to think that there hasn’t even been one Asian to make the rank of principal. Masahiro Suehara, a male Japanese ballet student at the School of American Ballet who showed amazing talent and promise, pronounced “soloist material” by the company director, was not given a job by that said director because he said Suehara was too short. Coincidence? It’s all speculation, I guess. But come on, ballet directors, there are a lot of great Asian dancers… give us a chance!

With my move to San Francisco, I was excited to see such talent, youth, and diversity at my “local” ballet company, in stark comparison to the companies in NYC. Yuan Yuan Tan is considered the “star” of the SF Ballet, along with some Asian dancers with exciting, up-and-coming talent in the company as well. Some of my personal favorites as Frances Chung, and Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun.

And seeing an Asian ballerina dance as the romantic female lead was definitely a first for me, and I loved it. Tan’s “mother” was not Asian, and Albrecht, the prince, was not Asian… but nothing looked “odd” or “weird” because the dancing was divine. I do hope this is what ballet looks like in the future, racially diverse and ultimately… what should matter most is dancing ability. I hope and expect to see more Asian ballet dancers on stage, who in turn can inspire young Asian ballet students to dream big.

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About Jen

I’m a Korean-American living in the bay area, I studied public health and social work in grad school, and I have an obsession for anything theater related, especially ballet and Broadway musicals. I just spent three years in NYC so I am still adjusting to normal winter weather and having a car, and most of the time, I am busy funding my passion for theater with a full-time job in healthcare public relations. On any given day, you can find me watching Project Runway, shopping, doing yoga, skipping to the theater, or looking for the perfect cocktail.
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