Shortly after a 2017 discussion with New York City Ballet about changing Asian stereotypes in “The Nutcracker,” Phil Chan co-founded the advocacy initiative Final Bow for Yellowface with NYCB soloist Georgina Pazcoguin. Launched with a pledge to end yellowface on stages, their aim was to bring together conversations about representation of Asian culture in ballet to push the field toward more meaningful depictions. Now, Chan’s new book, “Final Bow for Yellowface,” traces this journey — presenting a look at racism within classical ballet, while also painting a portrait of what a more inclusive industry might look like and how to achieve it.
With “Nutcracker” season at the front of our minds, Ballerina Book Club host Isabella Boylston corresponded with Chan about storytelling, presenting archival footage with outdated racial depictions and what he hopes to see in for the future of ballet.
In “Final Bow For Yellowface,” you provide an excellent breakdown on the difference between character and caricature. This is particularly relevant as companies revisit their productions of “The Nutcracker” around this time of year. Could you talk more about this distinction for those who haven’t yet read your book?
Characters have depth, nuance. You empathize with them, root for them. We identify with characters. Caricatures by contrast are shallow, exaggerated. Caricatures are brushstrokes that cue you into what they are trying to represent. Caricatures are shorthand, often the butt of the joke. It would be like the difference between a beautiful photograph of yourself (character) versus a theme park souvenir cartoon sketch of yourself (caricature), or the difference between Olivia Colman’s portrayal of Queen Elizabeth on “The Crown” (character), versus Fred Armisen’s portrayal on Saturday Night Live (caricature).
That’s not to say all caricature is bad — caricature is an important tool as a critique of the powerful, as long as you’re punching up instead of punching down. So lampooning presidents and world leaders through caricature is an important check on their power, but performing caricatured blackface to make fun of Black people is offensive.
I include in the book a tool folks can use to not only help understand this distinction, but also to figure out appropriate solutions in order to save the work.
This year, some dance companies wanting to stream old recordings of “The Nutcracker” in lieu of live performances may find that the only footage they have is racist and outdated. What is your advice for any companies finding themselves in that position?
I just wrote an article about this for Dance Magazine, but essentially: Be upfront with the problems, use it as an opportunity to educate audiences about outdated racial depictions in ballet, and demonstrate how your organization is taking concrete steps to do better. I think it’s important that we preserve evidence that our ballets have changed through time to be more inclusive. We should say, “Yes, our art form used to do blackface and yellowface, we don’t do it anymore — and this is why.” It’s in talking about the “why” that we really can start to educate ourselves on how to move forward in our anti-racist practice.
I love in your book when you say, “the antidote to cultural appropriation is inclusion.” Are there any stories in particular that you would like to see made into a full-length ballet?
There are so many Chinese legends that would be beautiful story ballets, but also contemporary stories about people today. Ballets based on current books, current themes, with current music. If you think about it, that’s what “Le Corsaire” was in 1856 — a ballet based on a popular poem of the time with music by a popular contemporary composer from that same time. We should be taking that same approach in the 21st century, not just using music by dead composers when there are so many exciting new musical frontiers, especially by living American artists. Toni Morrison’s books or Amy Tan’s could and should be ballets, ballet just hasn’t caught up yet. Wouldn’t a “Handmaid’s Tale” ballet be able to make a powerful critique about the art form itself?
I think it’s not just about the stories we want to see, but who we want to see making the stories, which is the other side of the same yellowface conversation. If we remove the outdated Asian representation, what authentic Asian-ness takes its place? My Final Bow co-founder Georgina (Gina) Pazcoguin, who is a soloist a New York City Ballet, and I are working to build an Asian choreographic incubator, which will pair emerging Asian American choreographers with Asian American composers, fashion designers, filmmakers and visual artists to create new work. We plan to film the dances, tour them, and then present the videos to the artistic directors of the leading ballet companies and say, “Hey, everyone here is Asian, alive and available for hire.” We think this will not just greatly increase the number of Asian choreographers given a chance to make work at big companies, but also make room for other creative collaborators to work with ballet.
How can we — as dancers or audience members — make sure that the roles we are given aren’t divorced from the culture they are meant to represent? For example, when a dancer portrays Nikiya, an Indian temple dancer, in “La Bayadère.” In a way, I feel like “La Bayadère” is so removed from actual Indian culture that it feels to me more like past/future sci-fi. I’ve always approached the role of Nikiya with deep reverence and respect, and she’s such a glamorous, soulful character, but how can we ensure that we are treating cultures with respect in portrayals like this?
As the ballet world gets more and more diverse, stories that were based on what Europeans thought other cultures looked like 150 years ago will be more and more irrelevant and feel more and more hollow. Yes, Nikiya may be a nuanced character we are supposed to empathize with, but that doesn’t fix the larger power dynamic that “Bayadère” presents.
That being said, I do think it’s important that we don’t throw out the warhorse classics. They are an important part of living history, the musicality, the steps, the transitions, the theatrical tradition — this foundation must be absorbed and understood by any contemporary choreographer if we want to move the art form forward as innovators. If we don’t know where we’ve come from, how will we know where we’re going? So how do we keep the classics in our repertory while society around us changes what is and isn’t acceptable?
What holiday programs are you streaming this season?
Gina and I are actually producing a holiday program this year — “Mystery Nutcracker Theater“! Taking this idea of removing a strictly European lens, we’re collaborating with Chinese Theatre Works, a local New York City Chinese shadow puppet troupe, to do voice-over commentary over a 1984 archival copy of Ballet West‘s “The Nutcracker,” which also happens to be America’s original production dating back to 1944. We’re hoping to give everyone who is missing “Nutcracker” this year a good dose of fun, dance history, terrible puns and dad jokes, and also a new appreciation for the larger racial conversation the ballet has inspired.
What books are on your shelf? Any current favorites?
One book I think every dancer should read is Gelsey Kirkland’s second book called “The Shape of Love,” [which] really breaks down her craft and shows her approach to her artistry. It follows her as she regains control of her body and life, and her experience as she returns to the stage as Juliet and Aurora at the Royal Ballet. I wish I had read it as a young dancer; it would have changed everything about my approach to dancing.
I also really enjoyed Jennifer Fisher’s “Nutcracker Nation,” which I lent to Peter Martins (and he never returned!). If you need a good “Nutcracker” book, “Nutcracker Nation” is a wonderful read.
What’s on your holiday wish list?
I’d love a COVID vaccine, and for someone to finish writing my second book (a survey of about 100 orientalist ballets from 1700–2020 — surprise, surprise — coming out early 2021). I’d also happily take world peace and a beach house. I’ve been very good this year, Santa!
Do you have a favorite book store in the city?
The Strand is great because I usually find little treasures there, or at least gifts for other people. I love the smell of used book stores and old libraries.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for length.