Ballet for the 21st Century - Orientalism and Ballet

January 05, 2021 Emma Lister, Makeshift Company Season 2
Ballet for the 21st Century - Orientalism and Ballet
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Ballet for the 21st Century - Orientalism and Ballet
Jan 05, 2021 Season 2
Emma Lister, Makeshift Company

In this episode of MOVERS SHAKERS MAKERS mini-series, Ballet for the Twenty-first Century, Emma Lister and guest Phil Chan discuss his first book Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing Between Intention and Impact, and his upcoming work, Shades of the Orient, in which Chan supports his claim that Orientalism is one of the major pillars of classical ballet. He puts forward some constructive solutions on how to stage problematic works (La Bayadère set in 1930's Hollywood anyone?!) and discusses the impact that recent social justice movements have had on ballet companies.

Chan is cofounder of Final Bow for Yellowface, a pledge to eradicate outdated portrayals of Asians on stages the world over. To date, almost every major American ballet company has signed this pledge, and several international companies as well.

Final Bow for Yellowface Website:

Follow them on Instagram: @finalbowforyellowface


This mini-series  has been made possible by a grant  using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode of MOVERS SHAKERS MAKERS mini-series, Ballet for the Twenty-first Century, Emma Lister and guest Phil Chan discuss his first book Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing Between Intention and Impact, and his upcoming work, Shades of the Orient, in which Chan supports his claim that Orientalism is one of the major pillars of classical ballet. He puts forward some constructive solutions on how to stage problematic works (La Bayadère set in 1930's Hollywood anyone?!) and discusses the impact that recent social justice movements have had on ballet companies.

Chan is cofounder of Final Bow for Yellowface, a pledge to eradicate outdated portrayals of Asians on stages the world over. To date, almost every major American ballet company has signed this pledge, and several international companies as well.

Final Bow for Yellowface Website:

Follow them on Instagram: @finalbowforyellowface


This mini-series  has been made possible by a grant  using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.



Emma Lister speaks over it:

I'm going to say this at the top, I love ballet, I fell in love with it when I was nine.  Like anything you love over thirty years, there have been ups and downs, but I want you to know I'm not here because I want to burn it down, I'm here because I think it needs a bit of a renovation in some areas.  It seems ballet is often in the headlines these days as it wrestles itself into the 21st century, whether it's pointe shoe manufacturers getting more inclusive with their colour ranges, the lack of female choreographers or a director fired for....  Well just do an online search and you'll see some pretty shameful examples.  In this Movers, Shakers, Makers miniseries, Ballet for the 21st century, we're going to talk about three topics that have bubbled to the surface recently.  That's not to say people haven't been calling for change before now, but the recent social justice movements have lit a fire under that call for reform.  In this miniseries we will be investigating each topic, interviewing experts and dancers and putting forward some constructive suggestions.   Today we present Ballet for the 21st century: Orientalism and Ballet


Emma Lister: I'd like to start with a thought exercise.  I'd like you to imagine you're watching Act II of The Nutcracker, Clara is probably sitting on a throne watching the diverts or about fifteen minutes in.   Next up is the Chinese dance, (Chinese music plays) the familiar trill sounds and the dancers enter, but in this Nutcracker, in your head, what are they wearing? How are they moving?  What position are their hands in, what is their overall manner?  Did you see queue ponytails, index fingers pointing skyward, maybe a bit of choreographed shuffling, over-exaggerated Asian eye makeup?  If you're like me you've seen many versions of this dance, probably with a combination of the things I've just mentioned.  Certainly in the past I've intuited that they were, shall we say, antiquated, but I would just do a shrug inwardly and think, you know it doesn't have the intention of being racist, it's just old choreography, but what I was not aware of is the impact it makes on Asian audiences, Asian dancers in the production and even the unwitting effect it has on the rest of the audience members by normalizing stereotypes.  Phil Chan thinks there's many ways in which such portrayals are antiquated, he also thinks there's a way forward without rejecting the entire classical repertoire.  He is co-founder of Final Bow for Yellowface, a pledge for companies and artists to sign promising to eliminate outdated stereotypes of Asians on our stages.  Since 2017 almost every major American ballet company has signed up to the pledge with multiple international companies as well.  He literally wrote the book on this topic, no really, he actually wrote a book, it's called Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing Between Intention and Impact.  His other writing credits include for the Dance Europe,  Dance Magazine and the Huffington Post.  He served multiple years on the [US] National Endowment for the Arts dance panel, and consults for ballet companies when they're presenting potentially sensitive material.  He is also an alumnus of the Ailey School, and is currently working on his second book.

EL: So, a badly done Chinese dance in Nutcracker is maybe the most egregious example of orientalism in ballet 'cos it is so prevalent, you know, like Nutcracker music is everywhere at Christmas, it's in Fantasia, every little dance school probably does little excerpts of it.  But ballet has many other examples of orientalism like La Bayadère or Scheherazade.  Could you tell me a little bit about early examples of Western portrayals of South and East Asians in ballet, just a little potted history.

Phil Chan: Sure.  So I'm currently working on my second book right now which is called Shades of the Orient.  And it's a survey of about a hundred different ballets from 1700 to today,  and it's looking at the dynamic at play when the Orient isn't a real place but rather an imagined place by Western colonialist artists.  So really the dynamic we're looking at is, you know,  started when Europeans first were exposed to Asia through objects.  Genghis Khan conquered a lot of the Asian steppes and as a result the exchange of ideas and goods were able to flow through a sort of more uniform nation.  And so during his reign we see this great period of religious tolerance, cross cultural exchange, we see Eastern philosophy, science, religion, medicine all making its way westward towards Europe, and so the first depictions of Asian-ness that Europeans encountered were through objects so : porcelain vases, fans, screens, like the famous Gilbert and Sullivan: "On many a vase and jar, On many a screen and fan." And so while they weren't authentic Asian people, they were sort of a stand in for these exotic peoples from places that were east of Venice.  So a lot of Europeans took these two dimensional objects and sort of made larger representations from them.  We start to see that manifesting in dance in the royal courts of Europe, so for example in Versailles, there would often be themed dress-up nights, so you might have a theme that's India, and everybody in the court dresses up in sort-of Indian-esque fantasy.  There wasn't necessarily accurate sort of India, China, Persia, they were all sort of interchangeable, intermixable, it didn't really matter.  They were just exotic over there,  so a depiction of India could include Egyptian pyramids, it could include turbans, it could include all sorts of general exotic things that weren't really based in reality   just because Europeans didn't have that knowledge or that context to really understand.

So some of the earliest depictions were in courts as part of these dress-up pantomime and the whole court would dance, they would have a dance, this was in the 18th century, and then when you look to the 19th century, especially in France, you see this rise of Romanticism, so this idea that Europe is starting to industrialize and we're sort of getting jaded here in Europe, but the Orient remains this place of pristine natural beauty, this place where magic still exists, where sex is possible, where sort of anything taboo in European society you could still explore under this lens of this is the Orient.  You mentioned Scheherazade, which I think is a great example, I mean they're pretty much having sex on stage and we have to remember this is 1910, so that in Europe what you're actually seeing on stage is quite groundbreaking at the time in terms of what was being seen, it was excused by the censors because it was this sort of Arabian savage ballet, it wasn't us Europeans, it was those savages over there, and so the Orient became a place where European artists could project a lot of these ideas, Western ideas about sex and magic and drugs and incest and the supernatural and nature, you know, all of these things.

EL: Sounds like a Netflix show! *laughs*

PC: I mean exactly, so, you know, the Orient was a stand in, a vessel, if you will, that could contain all of these creative ideas.  So, actually, as part of my book I'm arguing that actually Orientalism is a pillar of ballet, not just like a sideshow, but a real pillar of what keeps the structure of classical ballet oriented.  And the reality is once we start trying to push for diversity, equity inclusion, we start to actually wanting to  bring real Asian, Middle Eastern people involved, that pillar starts to rock, we start to see that, ''oh, these aren't actually real portrayals with integrity''.  So what we need to do is replace the pillar of Orientalism with actual Asian artists creating work in their own voices.  So I think that's the phase that we're in right now.  But if you just look back in history, any time ballet has experienced a decline or even a death, Orientalism comes in instead and sort of saves the day.  Whether it's the rise of the ballerina with Taglioni and La Bayadère.  Actually before Petipa's version her father made a Bayadère which was, you know, we know Taglioni from her her La Sylphide, but that was actually the sequel to a Bayadère production.  Whether it's the rise of male dancing in the 20th century, you know you see the Nijinsky dancing without a shirt on, which, you know, before that the male dancers were sort of these Ken dolls that lacked personality, they were just sort of there to support the woman (EL:  Little tiny heels).  Exactly.   And suddenly you have these men who are shirtless and they are exciting and their virtuosic and sexy, and suddenly you gave way to, you know, a rise for male dancing, so again Orientalism seems to be this this powerful force in classical ballet as a way to, for lack of better word, orient ourselves to who we are by defining what we aren't.  

EL: One of the really powerful tools you give the reader of your first book is how to consider the effect art has on the people who are watching it, and you speak in terms of intention and impact.  Can you tell me about your personal experience sitting in the Metropolitan Opera House in 2015 and watching The Sleeping Beauty in terms of intention and impact.

PC: Yeah, so you're mentioning a revival of The Sleeping Beauty that was done by Alexei Ratmanski who's the resident choreographer at American Ballet Theatre, America's national company.  He is somebody who I respect and admire very much, his process involves trying to sort of create a time capsule experience, to go back in time and see what a ballet might have looked like at a certain point in time.  So if we're seeing Harlequinade as a reconstruction we could sort of imagine ourselves back in the Imperial Russian court and watching the performance as they did at that time.  The problem with that approach is that unlike the visual arts, or film, or things that are more static, the performing arts live and have to reflect the moment and the people who are seeing it.  The Mona Lisa will always be the Mona Lisa, we just can't change it;  The Wizard of Oz will always be The Wizard of Oz.  Whereas when you have a live piece of performance, that has to be constantly changing, every show is different.

So for me, as a Chinese person going in to see Sleeping Beauty, first of all as a balletomane I was so excited, you know, to have this experience to be able to imagine what ballet looked like, you know, in a previous iteration.  I think that's very important for us to be able to keep that way of doing things, because as a, also as a contemporary choreographer who's looking to the future, looking forward, if we don't have a strong springboard of where we came from clear, it is very difficult to innovate forward.  I do think there is value in recreating and looking at history this way.  However, for me as part of this experience, there was a trio of Chinese dancers that were, I don't believe they were in the original Sleeping Beauty, but they were in the Diaghilev Sleeping Princess versions from the early turn of the 20th century, and for me I was really enjoying the ballet up until that point, and it suddenly felt like we were also in addition to reviving this ballet regurgitating some of these outdated portrayals of how other people and places looked.  There's sort of a Chinese trio, an Arabian...situation.  And so, on one hand we're trying to do things like get more Asian people as students, as board members, as subscribers, audience members, donors, yet in the very same breath the actual rep what we're serving to them is visions of their culture and what they're supposed to look like from what Europeans thought they looked like a hundred, two hundred years ago.  The costumes actually were designed or reconstructed based on older designs from the 1700s, you know, so that had just trickled down, and then Diaghilev fell in love with them and then reproduced them and then Ratmanski fell in love with those and reproduced them.  So, actually, we're looking at a Chinese that is almost four hundred years old in that production.  And so I'm sitting there as somebody today thinking ''wow, we have the Internet, we have, I'm here in the audience, you know, and we still can't get this right''.  For some reason, the importance of showing history accurately was more important than my experience as an audience member, as a Chinese person in the audience, and so to me that presents a really sort of a disjointed approach, where we want people of colour involved in this art form, that we're still pretending that the Czar's our audience. 

And so I've been saying a lot lately, "the Czar is dead!", why are we pretending that we are making ballet for the Czar when it's not, we're making ballet for people like Emma and Phil, you know, who are not rich, white, you know, aristocratic European nobility, so why are we pretending like we still are.  So my fear is that when we take this time capsule approach and that's the only way we can revive history, ballet will become quaint and irrelevant, sort of like a civil war reenactment, sort of like a toothless play that's just sort of a glimpse into history but has nothing to do with who we are today.  And I think that ballet has so much potential to be so much more you know.  If we have this art form that can convey joy and beauty and loss and all of these deep human feelings that resonate across time, our classics should be able to keep those things at the heart of it, but how they look will have to change.   

EL: Was this the performance or was it The Nutcracker is over, when after the curtain came down the lights came up, there were some little girls sitting nearby you....

PC: Yeah, that was The Sleeping Beauty.  So after the performance I was sort of jarred and as I stood up to leave these two little girls sitting behind, pulled their eyes back at me, you know, mirroring what they saw on stage, and it was just so clear that what we put on stage gets programmed into our subconscious so quickly.    And so I can see why Peter Martins, who was  artistic director of New York City Ballet, invited me in to have this conversation around Balanchine's Nutcracker, and the first thing he told me was that over the years the company had received thousands of letters, a growing number every year, from parents saying I'm not comfortable taking my kids to this and presenting you know, these other cultures in this way.  So I think it's something that's starting to be unavoidable for us if we do want to have a diverse audience.  If we don't, then maybe we can stop pretending that we do; if we really do, we've got to do better.

EL: Like you said a little while ago, the idea of the Orient just means east, whereas Occident, which we never use, means west, so the whole foundation of Orientalism in the West is basically an othering view of the East, like somewhere, as you said, east of Venice, in fact, so it's actually quite a general term.  But I think it's good to point out that though if I say Asian or Oriental it could almost be India, Korea, Japan, Turkey.  It's good to know that these different cultures are exoticized in different ways, obviously depending on where you are, and I feel a little uncomfortable saying some of these, these are examples, so South Asians can be portrayed as opium smoking, and all mystery and spices and temple dancers, and the men are negatively feminized, perhaps weak.  As you point out in your book, the Chinese community in America could also be opium smoking, and lazy and uneducated and, at worst, vermin; and as you also point out, this waxed and waned depending on the majority culture's interaction with Asia at any given time.  So can you speak specifically about, let's get specific in this generalised term, about the US and sort of the anti Asian propaganda historically.

PC: Sure, so at the beginning of the 1800s we struck gold in California and we suddenly had an influx of Chinese people coming from China to the western United States.  These were not necessarily the rich elite of China, these were the poor working class people, so they wore hats like they wore in the fields to keep the sun off their neck, and they had a queue hairstyle which was popular during the Manchu time, because it was a sign of submission to the Manchu rule.  All Chinese men had to wear their hair in this way to show that they recognized their Manchu overlords, and in the United States the hair was sometimes used to lynch them.  Sometimes in an act of terror they would cut off Chinese peoples' hair, essentially saying that they could never go home to their native country without being seen as a traitor.  They would be beheaded if they if they went back to China without the queue hairstyle.  So to see that in so many Nutcracker productions is so strange to me, like we wouldn't put Jewish stars in The Nutcracker to signify Jews so why would we do that with Chinese people?  It's really a very similar dynamic.  So of course, when the gold dried up in California, these same lazy Chinese workers had to find other things to do, and another low wage job that was pretty dangerous, and a lot of white people did not want to do was the railroads, so that became the next place that Chinese people worked.  And so if you see this other group of people suddenly coming and swarming your town; they look different, they speak another language, their food smells funny, you know they were all men, so there might be a threat to your women because they weren't allowed to bring their wives, they were literally just here as workers.  So all of those things in the grand tradition of Americans' xenophobia caused us to put, to put things into law like the Chinese Exclusion Act that actually barred Chinese people from coming over here from getting gainful employment, from being treated as equal citizens and contributing to our society here in America.  We see this with lots of different groups as they began to come to United States.  So other examples of that would be the Japanese internment, where we put Japanese Americans in concentration camps here in the United States (EL: during World War II) because we were afraid of, yes, during World War II,  because we were afraid of who they were or what they could do to us.  You see anti Asian sentiments flaring up during the Vietnam War, during the Korean war and most recently during covid.   I have to say I've been spat on in public multiple times just, you know,  for being a Chinese person in public.  It's still a part of our makeup as Americans, and you know we see that everywhere.  So a lot of our work was for Final Bow for Yellowface was substituting character for caricature.  So we're saying instead of this two dimensional portrayal let's focus on how we make three dimensional portrayals of people that you can empathize with, people that have nuance.  So that when you see somebody like me coming down the street your first instinct isn't to spit.

EL: Context, I think, is the best way to combat this kind of amnesia we get about the way in which we treat people, and so I thank you for the history lesson and how that connects, for example, a production of Nutcracker with queue ponytails, the rice paddy hats, and how that is completely inappropriate and it's not just a costume. 

PC: I had a funny, I had a funny conversation.  There was a German magazine was interviewing me and they asked me the question, ''it's just a costume right''?    And I said OK, well, in 1944 was America's first production of Nutcracker, by San Francisco Ballet, and say instead of a Chinese dance we had a German dance, and say we depicted Germans the way we did in 1944, and say because we're a conservative art form and we don't like to change things we kept tradition alive by doing that German dance the same way we did it in 1944.  So I would ask her, you know, are we really goose stepping Nazis?  Is that really the best representation of Germanness in the 21st century?  And, yeah, she got it.  And so, yeah, I think the same thing applies to Chinese people.   Yes Chinese people might have worn queues had worn rice paddy hats a hundred and fifty years ago, but I certainly don't look like that and if I were bringing my kids to The Nutcracker that's probably not the best part of Chinese culture that I would want them to see.  I don't see myself in those depictions, it feels very foreign to me, so I think we have a responsibility to do better if we want Chinese people like me in the audience and in the field.

EL: Let's speak about another ballet which is very popular in repertoires and also involves opium.  So everyone in the East is smoking opium, like westerners don't smoke drugs, right!  Let's talk about La Bayadère.  So though your book is predominately about it's from an American perspective.  Which I could tell reading the book that you're looking, you're being very specific about the length at which you're looking at things.  If we're talking about Orientalism in a more general way, they're going to be different uncomfortable conversations depending on what country you are in.   So, for example, in Europe obviously the spectre of colonialism looms large in a way that is different in America, so I don't know how we sensitively present La Bayadère in Britain in 2020 considering that India was a colony of the British Crown like less than a hundred years ago, and there's some kind of weird nostalgia about that time.  So my question is: is presenting La Bayadère in the States less complicated than presenting it here?  Should we be making decisions about how to present these things on a production-by-production basis?  Or as a dance form, do we need to find a consensus about how to approach these things because there's so many complex layers?

PC: I think it's, the conversation applies to both America and the UK regardless of the colonialist history because of who's in the audience.  The UK is growing to be a more and more diverse society, it's been, it's less homogenous, it's not just white Brits anymore, the UK, it is starting to become a much more mixed place and so as a result you need to think about, you need to keep that in mind that that is your audience.  I'm currently working on a new version of Bayadère with dancer called  Doug Fullerton   check out of Pacific Northwest Ballet.  He's an absolute genius.  He knows all of the Stepanov notations, he's also a musicologist, so I'm incredibly lucky to collaborate with him.  But we're going back to the old notations to rebuild these dances but we're changing the setting of how they look.  So if you look at Creole Giselle, Dance Theatre of Harlem, for example, that's taking a story about an Bavarian girl and it's translated into the Louisiana bayou, and suddenly it's the same steps, so no one would say that it's not Giselle, but it's taking on a context that speaks to the people alive today in this community.

So a game I like to play is I call  it  'what else could it be'?  So If there is something that is maybe racist or sexist or anti semitic or, you know,  whatever, ask yourself what else could it be?  What if we strip away the costume and the makeup and just look at the steps and the music, what else could this dance be?  So our Bayadère, keeping in mind these are all the same Petipa steps that people know, you know, Kingdom of the Shades, that comes out of variations, even some of the things that are more recent changes or Soviet changes we're going to keep, but we are re-staging the ballet to be set in 1930s Hollywood.  So imagine Singing in the Rain, imagine Solare is Gene Kelly,  Nikiya is Debbie Reynolds and Gamzatti is Lena Lamont.  It's the same story, it's got this love triangle, and instead of taking place in an Indian temple the action takes place on a Hollywood movie set, so instead of bayaderes dancing with veils, our version they're filming a country western picture and so our bayaderes are actually cowgirls with lassoes instead of bayaderes with veils.  It's the same choreography and they're wearing character shoes but they're cowgirl boots, and so we're, its actually quite a conservative approach because we are going back to the text, we are going back to the original dances.  It's not like, you know, like Mark Morris' Hard Nut or the Matthew Bourne version of Swan Lake exactly, it's Petipa a hundred percent, or Petipa with Soviet additions, but it's still a classical ballet, we're just changing how it's dressed up.  Similarly we're working on a version of La Corsaire which is very problematic.  It's very sexist, antisemitic, it's got, you know, happy dancing slaves, yeah, so I'm thinking like here we are in America, our original sin in America is slavery, and here we have Misty Copeland the first black woman principal at ABT [American Ballet Theatre] dancing the happy slave part in Corsaire.  Like, what are we doing? This is our national company doing this!  So questioning that, that idea, so when we take the 'what else could it be' game and apply it to Le Corsaire, well instead of a harem fantasy,  our Corsaire takes place at the Miss Ocean Beauty Pageant at the Pirates Cove Casino in Atlantis Beach, again it's a fictional made up place. it's a fantasy place but it's making the joke about us, it's not saying you dopey Arabs over there, it's saying look at us as Americans.  Our Pasha, for example, is going to be played by a woman in travesty, which is a tradition in ballet, but our Pasha is the owner of the casino and the organizer of the beauty pageant, and he's the type of guy that believes that you can just grab them by the p***y , you know, that kind of guy, not anyone we know, not based in real fact, but again that's somebody that we recognize as ''Oh the jokes on us, not on you''.  And when we reframe the ballet in that way it can actually speak to living people today.  Any American person does not need to read the libretto and say ''Oh no, this is Arabia, this is a fantasy, this is India and a fantasy'', you know, we don't need those cues, everyone will recognize ''Oh this is a beauty pageant, joke's on us, it's about us'', and I think that's when you get audiences to really invest in this art form, when they see themselves.  That's when we get young people wanting to, you know, get into ballet that way we get board members of colour saying ''Oh this is juicy, I'm into this'', so it's again, it's there is a way to preserve history and to be respectful and conservative in your approach to maintaining history, but also being open to a new way of looking at it.  

And just some of the push back that we've gotten so far has been, you know, how dare you change this, how can you?  Who are you to change this?  And so, it's like our legs have gotten higher, you know, we've gotten more technical.  You know, the Black Swan tutu was originally Canary yellow, then for awhile it was red, it was danced by two dancers, and then someone along the way said 'oh, 'maybe it should be like a black and white thing to make it more dramatic and maybe have the same ballerina do both roles'', and now it's tradition, you know, you wouldn't, if you saw a Black Swan tutu in a canary yellow, it would be very jarring, you'd say ''this isn't Swan Lake'', but it is, that was the original.  So as an art form we are changing all the time.  So if we're changing all the time, why can't we change how we represent people of colour, especially if we want them in the room next at that. 

EL: That evolution is basically, it is the only way forward, and one of the brilliant things about your book, about your first book, is that it actually it gives you some very clear tools as to how to use that.  You mentioned briefly character versus caricature, would you mind just expanding that a little bit for us?

PC: Yeah, so characters are people that have, that you're supposed to empathize with as an audience member, they have nuance, they have depth, they are in on the joke, they're three dimensional, they have a richness to them.  Whereas, caricatures are meant to be shorthand, they're two dimensional, they're flat, they're not nuanced, they are exaggerated, you know.  So a Chinese caricature might be taking a simple gesture like a bow, which is an act of reverence, it's slow, it's respectful, it's heavy if you speed that up and repeat it it becomes a shuffle a bobbing head.  You know, so that's something where you exaggerate a trait to turn it into caricature and it becomes shorthand for an entire culture, which is understandable.  If you look at the Chinese dance in The Nutcracker, you know it's about a minute, how do you convey to an audience member 'Chinese' in one minute?  You know you can't create a whole back story, you can't create, you know, nuanced cultural depictions in one minute, it's just, it's impossible, so you have to lean on caricature to,  for audiences to get it.  And, unfortunately, you know, while you could say that the original dance wasn't meant to be caricatured, since then, looking at our media and how we've portrayed Asian people, that's been sort of polluted over the year's, so that has taken on a secondary meaning.

 Look in caricature, even though you know the original intention might not have been that way.  So we can't just say well the person who choreographed that didn't mean it to be racist therefore it's not, we have to say how does that land as you as a person from this group, how does that feel to you having walked through the world with all of these tropes and all of these boxes that you have been put in?  Does it ring true to your experience?  And I think that the Chinese Nutcracker if it's caricatured it doesn't ring true to a lot of Asian American.  So I think that that's where we're at.

EL: Another interesting distinction you made was 'punching up'.

PC: Yeah, so caricature does serve an important role in the theatrical tradition, it's a way of sort of calling out power and powerful institutions.  So, you know, whether it's Monty Python doing the Queen Victoria races or Saturday Night Live making fun of the president of the United States, which has a long tradition of doing it.  It's a way, it's a way of critiquing powerful institutions, it's a way to use humour, to kind of poke holes in situations that might be, there might be an imbalance of power or a dynamic that is unequal or unjust.  So caricature does have an important role to play in our art.  The question is if you're using it to critique power that's one thing, but if you're using it to demonize groups with less power, that's where it becomes problematic.

EL: I know you're keen to point out that your personal anti-yellowface advocacy isn't like a social justice movement, it's about making better art and letting people in. But I wondered whether the recent awareness around race because of the new Black Lives Matter movement that has echoed through various arts institutions, has that sensitized people more to historical use of yellowface? 

PC: Absolutely.  I  think post George Floyd we've seen a lot of companies really having a second look at this stuff.  I think before it's felt a little bit like my co-founder Georgina,  Georgina Pazcoguin and who's a soloist at New York City Ballet, she and I have been sort of screaming into the wind a little bit before, and now just having more audience members picking this up and putting pressure on their ballet companies or ballet company artistic directors and the people who are the gatekeepers in positions of power, to really question their role in this larger system that perpetuates outdated portrayals.  I think it's been overwhelmingly positive.  I'm really glad that my book can speak to other groups of colour too.  While our case study is about Asians, the process I go through looking at the history, looking at the geopolitical context and looking at the places, any group of people today you can apply that to any group of people, whether it's black people, First Nation's people,   let next people, as long as you follow the same framework I've laid out. In my case study of Asians you can start to see why other groups might also have problematic portrayals, so whether it's blackface whether it's Arabian in the Nutcracker, you can follow the same argument to understand how to do better for any other groups of people. 

EL: You said before that you and Georgina Pazcoguin are relatively conservative, actually in your approach, so I'm going to quote your own book at you, sorry *laughs* ! You say ''the art we are reviving didn't exist in a social vacuum, there are social consequences today to the 1890s, symbols we choose to put on stage''.  So give me the argument for keeping the Merchant of Venice, keeping La Chant du Rossignol, keeping Gone with the Wind.  Why don't we just make new pieces?  

PC: Yeah, I actually had that that discussion with a class of interns.  It was like a students of colour internship class and I was talking about my programme, and one of the students raise their hand after I spoke and said that, well, if The Nutcracker is inherently a colonialist racist work, wouldn't it just be better to throw it out and have a Chinese choreographer make a new dance, or an Asian choreographer make a new dance, a new holiday ballet?  And as a dancer too I'm sort of in the position of both, Chinese American and a classical dancer.  If you were trying to push this art form forward, you would need to know where we have come from in order to innovate, so I don't think that the solution is to just throw away stuff that makes us uncomfortable or that isn't of the time now.  I think there's great importance to preserving history but it's how you contextualize it and understand it and use it in the present day, that is what needs to be changed. 

So, for example, if you look at Confederate statues in the United States, these are sort of symbols from the Civil War that, sort of, almost glorify the losing side of the Civil War.  So to me as I see it, there's three solutions that you could do with these Confederate statues.  The first is just leave them where they are and ''sorry black people if it's a reminder of your repression''; the second solution is to destroy it completely, take it down and throw it in the ocean, and the problem with that is you lose the history, so we're sort of almost cursed to repeat ourselves if we don't remember and see it for what it is;  and, sort of, the third solution which is closer to Jean and my approach, which is to take that statue out of the public square and put it in a museum with the appropriate context.  So you can still have that statue of Robert E. Lee,  but there's a plaque that says who is Robert E. Lee?  What's the civil war is about?  And why do we need to remember this person because he does have an important place in our history, but we need to understand why he has that important place in our history.  So for a lot of these ballets, you know, Bayadère, Corsaire, they are important to keep but if you're presenting them as entertainment, nobody, you can't expect that people will read the programme and come to the pre show talk and all of that stuff, you have to have it be presented at face value. I did say that, you know, if we were doing La Chant du Rossignol to say it was at a museum setting, at MoMA  [Museum of Modern Art], and there was a panel beforehand and that was the only ballet on the programme and then afterwards there was a conversation with Asian American activists, that might be a way to keep it as a time capsule piece.  But I think if you're putting it on a programme with two other Balanchine pieces from the Ballet Russe as part of Balanchine's greatest hits for the Ballet Russes, doing six shows of it for two weeks as part of an entertainment programme, that's not the appropriate context to do that sort of time capsule programme.  So the audience will be much smaller if you want to do something like this shot in a traditional way, and it will be more focused. But, yeah, I don't know, I could see La Chant's about a Chinese emperor who sort of rejects a living bird instead and it falls in love with a mechanical bird and as he's dying he realises that, oh no,  it's the real bird that's going to save him.  It could be a ballet about cell phones and social media, you know, it's the same story, it's a parable for saying, you know, what is real, guys, focus on human connection, focus on community, focus on looking at each other in the eye, that's what the ballet is about.   So how can you make that parable be something that resonates with people today?   I don't I don't see it as being that difficult, but if you do it in yellowface and you pretend that it's about Chinese emperors then it's, you lose the message because all you're thinking about is how uncomfortable you are at the yellowface.  

EL: "What else could it be"...

PC: Yeah, what else could it be?  And, you know, I think theatre and opera are very good at this lately.  I mean, who hasn't seen a Shakespeare production that takes place somewhere else  (EL: on Mars).  Exactly, and I think the reason why I think a lot of theatre and opera companies can afford to take more risks, and be a little less precious with their repertoires, is because it's written down.  Shakespeare, there's the written word of Shakespeare, in opera there is the score, whereas in ballet even dance notation, you know,  is really hard, it's expensive and it's not completely accurate, but it's also not accurate.  Right, if you can take a look at Odette's solo written down but it doesn't tell you where to breathe or how to make the audience cry or how to emphasize the life that's embodied in the steps.   It is still an oral art form, it's passed down from person to person to person to person, and so because of that I think there's a fear that, well we can't change it because it's already slipping through our fingers right now so let's hold on to as much of it as we can.  Whereas now with video, with more ballet companies around the world than ever before, even with virtual reality and sort of doing motion capture, we can maybe afford to be less precious with our dances. So yeah, you know, do a wild avant garde Swan Lake, because you can always go back and pop in the Paris Opera version from two years ago and watch that and enjoy it and it still will exist forever.

EL: Final question.  Arabesque.  It just occurred to me when I was writing my notes for this, does it literally mean: like an Arab?

PC: So, I was actually reading about the history of this.   Arabesque was originally a term that just meant like a grouping of dancers, it wasn't the step we know of today you know,  with the leg behind and reaching forward.  That step started to be called an arabesque because it mirrored a lot of the Arabian designs, like a design motif  (EL:  like the geometric...).  Yeah,  but I think there's a deeper meaning to the arabeque as a step.  The arabesque is probably the best stand-in for yearning and longing in ballet, it's reaching to something that's just out of reach, it's aspirational as a step, it's not, you aren't really able to, it doesn't stand in it's centre, it's reaching outward and, just like the orient, it's sort of just out of reach, it's something that's over there, it's something that is larger than life, more saturated, more beautiful than you could possibly imagine, and if you look at, you know, Giselle doing her arabesque in reaching back to life, reaching back to love, you see that, you see that it could be this longing for something that's different, something bigger out there, and so I think that's sort of taken on a second secondary meaning.   But yeah, I think the original intention was arabesque as in a la Arabian.

EL: For more information on Final Bow for Yellowface and updates on Phil's upcoming book Shades of the Orient check out their website, also they're on Instagram @finalbowforyellowface.

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