Flip of a coin, dawn of a prima ballerina

Shanghai-born ballerina Tan Yuanyuan, in the latest return to her hometown, paid her annual visit to the international ballet art studio, which she set up about three years ago.
Flip of a coin, dawn of a prima ballerina
Ti Gong

Tan Yuanyuan and dancing partner Aaron Robison demonstrate ballet movements during a “guided appreciation” of “The Little Mermaid” at the Shanghai Grand Theater.

Shanghai-born ballerina Tan Yuanyuan, in the latest return to her hometown, paid her annual visit to the international ballet art studio, which she set up at the Shanghai Theater Academy about three years ago.

As the prima ballerina of San Francisco Ballet, who earned international recognition over 20 years ago, Tan remains enthusiastic about sharing her experience and stories with young dancers.

“It all depends on how much you want it and how far you are willing to go,” Tan said, when asked about the secret to her success. “A positive mindset and a healthy dancing environment have been the keys to my career.”

At 42, she might be considered past the prime age of a ballet dancer, but she still remains active with some 80 performances every year. 

“It’s not that retirement has never crossed my mind,” said Tan. “Actually, every time I sustain an injury, I am overwhelmed by the fear that I might never make it back on stage.”

At the age of 5, Tan’s interest in ballet was sparked after watching an old broadcast of legendary Russian ballerina Galina Ulanova performing “Swan Lake.”

Tan started formal ballet instruction at the relatively late age of 11. It was a bit touch-and-go at first amid a family dispute. Her father, an engineer, opposed the idea of a ballet career, instead wanting for her to pursue a medical or law degree. Her mother, who once harbored ambitions of becoming a dancer herself, supported Tan’s desire to enroll in ballet school. The story goes that the parental impasse was resolved by flipping a 5-fen coin. Her mother won the toss.

She attended the Shanghai Ballet School and, at age 14, began competing in international ballet competitions. 

Her first major breakthrough came in 1992 at the 5th International Ballet Competition in Paris. Tan’s performance was awarded a perfect score by competition judge Galina Ulanova, Tan’s childhood idol.

In 1994, when Tan was studying ballet in Stuttgart on a full scholarship, she was invited by the San Francisco Ballet to dance as a guest of the company after Helgi Tomasson, artistic director of the ballet company, had spotted her talent at the Paris competition. 

Not long after, Tan was offered a full-time soloist contract and became San Francisco Ballet’s youngest and first Asian soloist at the age of 17.

Today, she remains the draw card of that ballet company and has been hailed as the greatest Chinese ballerina of all time. In 2004, she was featured on the cover of Time magazine. 

In a sense, she occupies a rarified position. Few other Chinese ballet dancers have hit international prominence in the past two decades, at least not on the scale that Tan has achieved.

“I can’t find a reason for that,” she said, “but I truly look forward to the next Tan Yuanyuan to walk into the spotlight and take over from me.” 

Tan now regards herself as an artist rather than a pure ballerina. The international ballet art studio at Shanghai Theater Academy aims to broaden the vision of young Chinese dancers. Artists from China and abroad are invited to come to the studio and mentor young performers.

“The road from a dancer to an artist requires persistence,” Tan said. “Classic ballet is the foundation. Then you gain experience both on stage and from life. I’m strict on myself. I want each performance to be flawless.”

She added: “When I was learning ballet in China as a little girl, I remember that my teachers emphasized technique but barely talked about the history of ballet. Therefore, students may become skillful, but they may also lack artistry. That’s why I hope more teachers and students will come to our studio lectures and get inspired.” 

On Wednesday, Tan and her dancing partner Aaron Robison gave a “guided tour” of San Francisco Ballet’s “The Little Mermaid” at the Shanghai Grand Theater. Tan shared with the audience stories behind the staging of the ballet and her interpretation of the role.

“The Little Mermaid” is a work by American choreographer and director John Neumeier. For Tan, who first starred as the mermaid at age 35, the story is a metaphor for the grueling, transformational rigors of ballet itself.

“‘The Little Mermaid’ was a turning point for me,” Tan told Shanghai Daily. “A ballerina usually starts on the downhill trajectory of a career at that age due to physical limitations, but her stage experience and understanding of dance don’t necessarily reach a peak.”

She added: “I still manage to improve my skills when playing the role. I realized that I could still grow at that age and find new ways to express myself, which was very exciting. For now, I will keep dancing.”

It has always been Tan’s ambition to create an original ballet performance using Chinese elements.

“The project is sort of under way,” Tan revealed. “I might borrow a script from a Chinese novel or movie, and then I will need to find a choreographer and director who are familiar with me and Chinese culture.”

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