OpEd: Why Asian Americans Are So Poorly Represented In Ballet

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A few weeks ago I went to see the New York City Ballet Tribute to Robbins, which featured Warren Carlyle’s lovely directing of Jerome Robbins’ choreography on Broadway. But as the number of The king and me started, I felt a familiar unease.

I rolled my eyes at the deceptively Thai headdresses and “exotic” musical motifs, irritations transferred from the musical, whose orientalist tendencies are well documented. But my disappointment doubled when I realized that I had never seen a ballet choreographed by an Asian American on this stage.

I left frustrated and confused. As a young dancer and Filipino American, I admire performers and choreographers who share my Asian-American heritage. Where are they?


Asian Americans have carved out complicated spaces in the dance canon amid stereotypes and discrimination. According to academics like Yutian Wong, there is a long history of Asian-American performances, from Chinatown “Chop Suey” vaudeville circuits to active roles in modern and postmodern dance movements.

Shen Wei – In black, white and gray at the Museum of Art + Design at Miami Dade College. Photo by Moris Moreno

On YouTube, the crisp hip-hop routines of Asian-American choreographers regularly score millions of views. Manhattan-based Shen Wei choreographed the magnificent opening ceremony inspired by the calligraphy of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Avant-garde artists like Eiko & Koma, Sam Kim and Denise Uyehara are pushing the boundaries of dance.

Renowned ballet companies feature conductors of Asian-American descent like Yuan Yuan Tan, Stella Abrera, Hee Seo, and Amar Ramasar. The appearance of the National Ballet of China in 2015 at Lincoln Center highlighted China’s long-standing cultural engagement with the western dance form.

But one of the biggest gaping holes, where you can hardly find an Asian American, is in the contemporary ballet choreography. On traditional stages, Asianism is present, but in a limited and problematic way.

Nutcracker“Chinese / tea” entertainment, perhaps the most well-known example of “Asian” ballet in canon, is unfortunately subject to stereotypical treatment.

A more recent example is that of Peter Martins The president is dancing. Choreography to the music of the opera by John Adams Nixon in China, it was created in 1988 and has been repeated several times since.

Write for The New York Times after its first, Dance critic Anna Kisselgoff pointed out that her “Chinoiserie” never takes into account “the extent to which Chinese viewers are offended by… ballet dancers acting like Chinese dolls in pajamas”. Two decades later, Alastair Macaulay called it a “pseudo-Maoist pastiche”, wondering why the City Ballet revived it in the first place.


Abi Stafford of NYCB in The Chairman Dances. Photo by Paul Kolnik

Last fall it was staged again as part of the company’s 21st Century Choreographers program. It was featured alongside Lauren Lovette’s Bold Ballet Not our fate, which incorporated homosexual partnership, and The composer’s vacation by Gianna Reiser, 18, the company’s youngest commissioned dancer.

Alongside these two milestones, Speaker dance is terribly out of place. Rather than resume a tired and problematic ballet, why not present a true “choreographer of the 21st century” of Chinese origin?


Edwaard Liang leads a class on stage at BalletMet. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda, courtesy of BalletMet

Asian-American dancers find some representation beyond traditional stages. Choreographed BalletX’s Caili Quan Follow the line for the Columbia Ballet Collaborative this spring. In Ohio, former NYCB and NDT soloist Edwaard Liang leads BalletMet as artistic director and actively creates new ballets. Ma Cong is resident choreographer of the Tulsa Ballet.

The late Goh Choo-San is the only Asian-American choreographer whose work has been particularly important at Lincoln Center: the work commissioned by Baryshnikov Configurations, for American Ballet Theater. Resident choreographer of the Washington Ballet in the 1980s, he created several neoclassical works for American companies.

The ballet world is slow to change, but we already know it can. Last year Alexei Ratmansky’s assertion that “there is no such thing as [gender] equality in ballet “was quickly reprimanded, in dance writing circles and in works like Lovette’s.

The representation of minorities is spreading. Kyle Abraham is on deck to create a work for NYCB next year as the fourth African-American dancer to do so. But the net should be a downpour – we need to recognize, and then rectify, that underrepresentation on stages and screens has almost always been about prejudice, prejudice and racism rather than who is or who is. is not really talented.

The “timeless” image of ballet must evolve or else it will become obsolete. This development must include Asian Americans, not only on stage as dancers, but also in the studio as dance makers and storytellers, far beyond mere symbolic expression or “East Meets” features. the West ”. It’s time for less Speaker dance, and more Asians in the choreographer’s chair.


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