From the flip of a coin to principal soloist in the San Francisco Ballet’s China debut, ballerina Yuan Yuan Tan has come full circle.
Born in Shanghai, Tan discovered passion for dance early in life — an interest her mother supported and her father opposed. Her parents decided to leave the decision up to a coin toss, a fateful move that landed in favor of dance, putting Tan on the road to becoming the most acclaimed ballerina to ever hail from China.
She became a soloist with the San Francisco Ballet at age 18 and at 20, became the youngest principal dancer in the history of the company (and the first Asian American to achieve either position).
Now, with the San Francisco Ballet taking a three week tour to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, Tan is returning to her roots as she tours Beijing, Shouzou and her home city of Shanghai. Tan will dance a full-length production of “Swan Lake” as well as other works from choreographers such as George Balanchine, Helgi Tomasson and Christopher Wheeldon.
Though Tan is still the world’s best-known Chinese ballerina, her meteoric rise to success is opening the doors for other Asian dancers who want to perform on the international stage. Her success is notable because she is revitalizing what has traditionally been seen as European art.
Tan’s repertoire includes lead roles in ballets such as “Giselle,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Nutcracker” — roles that were originally written for white females. By dancing these roles superbly, she shows that a ballet can be beautiful and unique even when deviating from the original artistic vision.
Tan is truly bridging the gap between east and west as she was named one of Time Magazine’s “Asian Heroes” in 2004 and has danced for both former President Bill Clinton and former Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji.
Here’s a video of Tan dancing in Othello Ballet:
Photo (top) of Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Yuri Possohkov’s “Fusion”; (bottom) of Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s “Nutcracker” © Erik Tomasson