Prima ballerina Tan still soars

Updated: 2014-05-07 11:39

By Chen Jia in San Francisco (China Daily USA)

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 Prima ballerina Tan still soars

Tan Yuanyuan and her dancing partner strike a pose in San Francisco. Provided to China Daily

Whether Tan Yuanyuan is twirling, leaping, bending, gliding or nearly flying through the air, the 37-year-old prima ballerina makes her graceful moves look effortless.

"If you want to do things well, you need to spend a lot of time at it," the Shanghai-born ballerina told China Daily at her theater studio in San Francisco. "What I do is very time consuming, you probably see only 10 minutes on the stage, but it takes 10 years of work to get there."

As a principal dancer with the San Francisco Ballet since 1997, Tan has added two new titles to her repertoire recently - author of the autobiography Dance and I and co-chair of the 23rd annual conference of the Committee of 100, an organization of Chinese-American leaders that serves as a bridge in building constructive relations between the world's two largest economies.

"It took me five years to finish the book, which tells people how I feel about myself as an artist, how I feel about the individual roles and how I have overcome difficulties," she said.

It records her feelings, failures and "some pretty painful experiences, in the way I understand myself more," she said. "That's how my book started."

Time magazine once described Tan as "the most critically acclaimed dancer to emerge from China", and she remains the only native Chinese principal dancer in an international dance company.

As an 18-year-old Chinese girl who couldn't speak a word of English, Tan went through difficult times finding a cultural fit and winning respect in the US. "From the beginning, I had to prove why I was selected to be the youngest principal dancer in the history of the San Francisco ballet," she said. "Competition is very common, because artists are very sensitive and very vulnerable. You've got to believe in yourself, and never give up."

In 1992, she was first spotted by San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson at an international dance competition in Paris. Three years later, 18-year-old Tan joined the company as a soloist.

In 1997, she was promoted to principal dancer, the highest position in ballet performance.

"It was an unusually rapid upward path, so I went through difficult times in communicating with people because all the girls were jealous of me. But I just did not let it get in my way," she said. "I didn't care what people thought of me. I just needed to prove I could do it."

Chinese Americans need to stand out above others to prove themselves, she said.

Tan was born in Shanghai in 1977 and trained at Shanghai Dancing School with her parents' support. Before coming to the US, she spent six months at the John Cranko School in Stuttgart, Germany. "I tried to learn a little German, but I still couldn't speak English at that time," she recalled.

After coming to San Francisco, she spent five years getting a college degree in a program designed for the dancers. She had four hours of class after the show on Sundays and went home with a lot of homework for the following weekdays.

"Usually it was hard because the shows ended at 11 and I went home so tired, but still had to sit before the computer to write an essay," she said. "It was a very hard journey, but I think it has all been worth it."

She used to tease the other dancers in the class, "Your mother language is English, so you can write an essay more easily. For me, it's like writing three essays, so it takes me three times as long."

Today, Tan no longer needs to prove herself, but she keeps good habits by sticking to a strict and busy daily schedule.

She goes to the theater studio at 9:30 am and works until 5:30 pm. Then she showers, takes a short nap and starts makeup at 6:30 pm. The show starts at 8 pm, so she usually leaves the theater at 11pm. During the performing season, there are two shows on Saturday and one on Sunday.

"I regret missing some social events on weekends, but I just can't disappoint my audiences of 3,000," she said.

During the non-performing season, her favorite entertainment is going to the movies or to Napa for massage and physical therapy.

"I am 100 percent focused on ballet now, but I would like to get more involved in public affairs if time allows," she said. "If I was asked to be a culture ambassador, I would be happy to consider it."

Shanghai and San Francisco are sister cities, a link bonding Tan's hometown and home.

"There are no politics in the arts, but the arts can be helpful in politics and diplomacy," she said.

"Art and artists can build bridges between countries. That's why so many art festivals and performances go back and forth," she said. "It's cultural exchange."

Ballet is an international art with no boundaries of nationality, because dance itself is the earliest language human beings were involved with, she said.

"Politics is politics, while art is international," she added.

(China Daily USA 05/07/2014 page1)