Tan Yuanyuan

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Edmund Lee talks to one of the world’s best ballerinas ahead of her star turn in Hong Kong Ballet’s production of Giselle.


Tan Yuanyuan is a Shanghai-born, San Francisco-based ballerina who’s been enchanting the world since she won a gold medal at the International Ballet Competition in Paris in 1992: still the single-most memorable performance of her glittering career. Indeed, we’re tempted to address Tan as the greatest ballerina to ever emerge from China. She was trained at Shanghai Dance School between the ages of 11 and 15 and was then remarkably offered a full scholarship by Stuttgart’s John Cranko School (Tan was the only non-German given that privilege); and, in 1995, the dancer was invited to take part in a gala performance of San Francisco Ballet over her school holidays – and was offered a contract by the company out of the blue. The rest, as they say, is ballet history.

“After the performance, [San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson] asked if I like the company. I said ‘yeah, it’s a great company’,” says Tan in a really innocent tone. “And then he said ‘I will offer you a contract’. And I was like, ‘really?’ I wasn’t expecting anything. I sort of just did a performance and then things happened – and I’m grateful that I got this opportunity. I thank Buddha for giving me everything I have today, but also I’ve tried hard and just continuously never stopped trying and [kept] being disciplined. Every day I tell myself ‘wake up! No matter you’re sore or in pain, it’s another day and I can do [even] better’.” Two years after she joined as a soloist, Tan became the first Chinese principal dancer in the history of San Francisco Ballet, one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the USA.

In the years that followed, Tan would cement her status as one of the top ballerinas of her generation seemingly by sheer will. “There’s a non-stop searching and non-stop trying to be perfect,” she declares at one point. “We know nobody can be perfect – in our world, nothing is perfect – but we’re trying to be better every day.” It is possibly this relentless pursuit for improvement that landed Tan her most emotional performance with San Francisco Ballet: the 2010 US premiere of John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid. “After the show, we did several curtain bows and I invited [Neumeier] up [to the] stage to take a bow, and he just came to the centre of the stage and gave me a very, very long hug in front of 3,000 people [at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco]. And then he said ‘thank you very much. You’ve told my story’. For me, that was very memorable.”

This week, Tan appears as the guest principal dancer of Hong Kong Ballet for its production of Giselle. It’s the latest in a series of collaborations between the ballerina and the Hong Kong company in the past few years. “I think it’s extremely important,” Tan says of her role as a cultural ambassador bridging the East and the West. “[For] dance, it’s not limited by countries or nationalities and I think it’s [a] united form of expression. In San Francisco, the audience is more open-minded and they will embrace the programme that we put down, [including the] very contemporary pieces, [such as] Wayne McGregor’s Chroma. For Hong Kong or for China, the audience is more reserved. They love to see a classical piece more than a really extreme or very contemporary piece. That’s the difference. Other than that, I think the audiences [from both cultures] come in and expect to see something beautiful.”

When Time Out reaches Tan in her hotel room, halfway through a week-long stay in London, it’s well past midnight and she has just gone through a long day of work with renowned British choreographer Russell Maliphant. “I think it’s eye-opening, this London trip, where I see so many great choreographers,” the ballerina says with noticeable glee. “My ambition is to work with all of them – and not only for the classic pieces but contemporary and neoclassical pieces [as well]. It’s very interesting to see how different it is from New York to London, and it’s interesting to see how all dancers are connected [around the world]. I’m still looking forward to a lot of opportunities – and things will happen.” In Tan’s case, they always do.

YY, can you recall the first time you did Giselle?
I only did the pas de deux when I was still in school for a student showcase – [I was] 15. My first Giselle was pas de deux only. But the first time I did a full-length ballet for Giselle was in San Francisco, when I was 19 and just got promoted to [be a] principal dancer. It was an amazing experience because it’s hard already to do the second-act pas de deux, which I’d done before, but for the full-length, you [had to] tell a story – you didn’t only dance a set, and that’s very difficult to do. I spent a lot of time with [the] coach going through everything and I did my homework aside from the practice. I went through all the videotapes and saw some of the clips of the greatest ballerinas doing Giselle – they all interpreted it in a different way, but they’re all very beautiful – but I had to find a way to make it all my own, because I’m me. I’m not anybody else. And let me tell you it’s not very easy because you do have to perform so many times on stage – and practice 10 times more in the studio for just two hours on stage. You build up your confidence and you build up your experience – based on how many times you’ve worked on it. And every time on stage it’ll be something new happening – and you’ll understand more. It’s endless but I’m happy to see everything go [according to] steps that I make.

How has your Giselle evolved over the years?
I have done different versions: a version in Japan, a Hong Kong Ballet version and a San Francisco Ballet version, which is slightly different, with extra pas de deux inserted into the first act because it has the original score. I’m going to do probably an Italian version of Giselle later in September, in Italy. I’m looking forward to that. I still have not [received] a videotape yet but… over the years, I just feel I get more mature as an artist – through the experiences that I have. I’ve been watching a lot of DVDs of [the legendary Russian ballerina Natalia] Makarova’s version, when she first did Giselle in the 1970s. That performance was amazing. She was one of my mentors and I’m glad that she invited me to perform in her gala in New York’s Lincoln Center [on April 28, as part of the Youth America Grand Prix’s Legends in Dance series]. I did her signature piece, White Swan Pas de Deux. I was very thrilled.

Giselle is one of the pieces in which dancers can really identify with their characters emotionally. Is that important to you as a performer?
I think as artists, you want to feel something. You want to dance and express yourself in a deeper role, because it’s not only something that your body does, but your heart – your soul – [is also involved] in the moment that you tell a story. That’s something I want to do. And, as hard as it is, I’m trying to do my best. It’s a long process – and it’s a fantastic journey.

Do you still get nervous when you perform on stage nowadays?
Every time, yes. You never can expect what’s going to happen on stage. Even though, for example, I’ve performed Swan Lake so many times, Giselle so many times, Nutcracker so many times – and all these full-length ballets like The Sleeping Beauty. But, yeah, I do get nervous before I go on stage. And it’s giving you the adrenaline. You feel the little butterflies in your heart – and that’s good. You’re excited.

So when you dance, do you feel the presence of the audience offstage or are you completely in a zone by yourself?
Completely in a zone by myself. If you’re so aware of the audience then it’s quite distracting. But when they respond after the show, then I can feel it and I can see it. I prefer [not to] see the audience… because actually I’m a little bit near-sighted. I don’t want to wear contact lenses because I don’t want to see too clearly. So I’m in my own zone. I just need to see my partner in the dark and that’s good enough. [Laughs]

A dancer’s physical condition is always going to determine how long his or her career will last. In your case, have you privately set yourself an age limit to your performing career?
I’ve always been asked this question – always! Before I’d say that when I reached a certain age I’d stop. But, actually, a couple of years later, [I’m] still dancing. I think my body will tell me when to stop – and by the point I know I should stop, I will stop. It’s [determined] by timing.

You began dancing and winning international competitions at a relatively young age. Speaking in abstract terms, what would you say has changed about you since then?
I think at the beginning I was young and I felt I danced because I was told to dance. Over the years, I’ve realised I dance because I love to dance. I dance because I feel it’s the thing I have to do, I want to do and, without it, I won’t be me.

Hong Kong Ballet’s latest production of Giselle is at Cultural Centre’s Grand Theatre May 25-27. Tan Yuanyuan is scheduled to feature in the opening performance. Tickets: 2734 9009; www.urbtix.hk.

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