Final Bow for Yellow Face, Phil Chan’s moving, excellent new book detailing the racially charged history of Asian stereotype in dance is going to prove a valuable resource. It repeatedly strikes resonant chords with America’s problematic history with race and Chan’s own complex upbringing and mixed race identity. Divided into two parts the book offers plenty of historical information about the tropes of Asian representation in classical ballet from Nutcracker, to La Bayadère, Scheherazade, and others. Importantly, the book also offers a guide for charting a route forward for dance companies and their hierarchies as they grapple with the elements of inclusion in redesigning modern versions that respectfully represent Asians and Asian culture without abandoning entire ballets to the dust bin.
For both, the successes of moving the conversation about race in the dance world forward represent a meteoric rise in focus after decades of retrenched Nutcracker productions
Part One centers on the unfolding of the American Nutcracker experience, in particular the development of the Act II Dance Chinoise, commonly known as Tea in most productions. The progenitors of the Nutcracker in America come from two early flagship productions at San Francisco Ballet in 1944, and Balanchine’s own, now widely franchised version for New York City Ballet in 1953. Part Two is a kind of case study of how developing a new production might include advisement from Asian and community stakeholders along with a company’s artistic direction and in doing so avoid falling into the traps of repeating historical and harmful stereotypes. Specifically it chronicles Chan’s own experiences working with Artistic Director Adam Sklute at Salt Lake City’s Ballet West in 2019 as a consultant for the preliminary phases of a revival by Kenneth Archer and Millicent Hodson of Balanchine’s 1925 lost ballet, Chant du Rossignol. The ballet based on the Andersen fairy tale describes the rescue of a Chinese emperor by a sacrificing nightingale. Originally choreographed for the Diaghilev Ballet Russes, it came packaged with a European cast in heavy yellowface makeup, caricatured movement, and other detractions that made an exact copy of the original performances a minefield of inappropriate and offensive choices for modern American audiences. You will have to read the book to find out how it all played out. There were wins but also losses. While plenty of ballet companies pride themselves on revisiting original sources for new productions Chan’s narrative represents a riveting and first of its kind collaboration between the conservative, often hidebound ballet world and a modern company with insider advisement actually trying to make thoughtful and respectful choices concerning representation of Asian characters and Asian narratives.
The book owes much of its story to the original web platform of the same name developed by Chan and his collaborator, Georgina Pazcoguin. Chan describes her as “the only Asian woman ever to make it out of the corps de ballet at New York City Ballet”. Pazcoguin, aka on social media as The Rogue Ballerina, is a soloist with NYCB, a Filipino American and has shared the journey with Chan since the creation of their web initiative in 2017. For both, the successes of moving the conversation about race in the dance world forward represent a meteoric rise in focus after decades of retrenched Nutcracker productions adrift in fu manchu mustaches, white dancers bobbing in black wigs, and shuffling comedic movement. Of course the movement was only comedic for white audiences because, as Chan points out, the joke wasn’t on them.
A center piece of the Part I narrative involves Chan’s meeting in 2017 with then Artistic Director at City Ballet, Peter Martins. As a response to growing hostile concern from audiences about the racism in the Tea section Martins found himself on the verge of being forced to replace some of the more insensitive caricature and had called Chan to get insider advisement. Those changes were eventually made, a seismic shift considering the reverential attitudes about Balanchine’s work. But in removing caricature (the easy part) without replacing it with character (the hard part) the section felt washed out. While the early focus was specifically on Nutcracker in America the conversation in 2020 has broadened considerably to include European, Australian, and international companies, other problematic ballets from the classical canon, and a full range of revised expectations about how to build inclusion and winning outcomes for dancers and audiences alike.
You will have to read the book to find out how it all played out. There were wins but also losses.
Final Bow for Yellow Face makes plenty of good arguments for the changes that need to be embraced by dance companies and audiences. Chan has a unique knack for framing complex issues without harsh dialectics. To be sure he is determined in his Asian advocacy but he also wants to win with everyone still at the table. To that end the book includes a set of best practices on how to produce outcomes in which inclusion benefits all involved. He often frames the process of arriving at better choices via dualities: impact/intention, appropriation/appreciation, caricature/character, insider/outsider. In Part Two he has produced an ingenious graph with caricature and character plotted along an x axis. Insider and outsider are plotted along the y axis. Most Nutcrackers as far as the Chinese Dance is concerned have languished in the lower left quadrant where non-Asian direction and harmful stereotypes intersect to create problematic outcomes. The “sweet zone” as Chan calls it, the upper right quadrant where bona fide cultural players and thoughtful, culturally accurate characterizations intersect, produce outcomes where inclusion of the end product makes everyone feel like they belong.
While Final Bow may have dance as its main context dance, there is sure to be much in the book that will be widely applicable to other situations and public institutions. Planning an ethnic themed fashion event or runway show? Restaging a musical? A museum exhibition? These are all to some extent performance related actions that when race characterizations are involved could use the kind of road map of consideration Chan has so clearly laid out in his book. It is a matter not so much of “creating separate lanes, but widening the highway”.
Final Bow for Yellowface is now available in e-book format on Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble, and Apple Books. A print version is planned for later this year. You can visit the Final Bow for Yellowface website to connect with upcoming events and sign the inclusion pledge.
main photo: Phil Chan and Georgina Pazcogin