Raising the barre

By Zhang Kun in Shanghai | China Daily | Updated: 2017-07-29 07:13

Raising the barre

Age is just a number: 40-year-old Tan Yuanyuan has no intention to retire and is currently working to produce a new neo-classical show. [Photo provided to China Daily]

A look at the achievements of Tan Yuanyuan, a prolific ballet dancer from Shanghai and a national treasure whose passion for her craft is as dazzling as her sublime movements on stage

On June 19, China's most acclaimed ballet dancer Tan Yuanyuan completed the last of many tasks her eponymous ballet studio had set out to do when she launched a book titled Zujian Shangde Yishu (The Art on the Toe: An Introduction to Nine Leading Ballet Companies in the World) at Hotel Equatorial in Shanghai.

Tan, who has been dancing with the San Francisco Ballet for more than 20 years, is the only Chinese dancer to ever attain the rank of principal at a major US ballet company.

The book documents the history and achievements of nine of the world's leading ballet companies and contains insightful interviews with various artistic directors and renowned choreographers.

Liu Wenguo, deputy director of the dramatists association in Shanghai, said that it was largely because of the trust and support Tan has won through multiple collaborations with these established companies and choreographers that the publication of such a book was possible.

Qian Shijin, who used to be a programmer at the Shanghai Grand Theatre, said that while ballet started about 400 years ago in France, it was only introduced to China in the 20th century. As such, it is remarkable that the country has been able to produce a ballerina such as Tan.

"She is without doubt China's pride. After all, she is the only Chinese ballet dancer to be featured on the cover of Time magazine."

Humble beginnings

Born in 1977, Tan grew up in a traditional neighborhood in Shanghai's Hongkou district. She still fondly remembers her childhood days when people would spend their summer evenings eating salted soybeans and watermelons to beat the heat.

Tan first learned about ballet when she watched legendary Russian dancer Galina Ulanova perform in Swan Lake on a tiny black - and-white television that was placed along the lane outside her home.

"She was so light. She was flying like a feather... I tried to imitate her by standing on my toe, but it hurt badly," Tan wrote in her 2013 autobiography Ballet and Me.

As a child, Tan enjoyed being outdoors and was exceptionally agile. She loved climbing trees, picking figs and catching cicadas. She first learned how to dance in pre-school where her teachers would rave about how she was born to do ballet. She was later approached by the Shanghai Ballet School.

However, Tan's father wanted her to become a doctor instead. Her mother, on the other hand, loved ballet and once even harbored the ambition of becoming a dancer. The latter naturally supported her daughter's wish to enter dance school.

Ling Guiming, the head of the Shanghai Ballet School at that time, also tried to convince the father of his daughter's rare talent. Ling said that the school's gates would always be open to the girl.

The parents reached an impasse regarding their daughter's future and decide to resolve the matter with the flip of a coin. Tan's mother won the toss.

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