Raising the barre

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

Raising the barre

Born in 1977, Tan Yuanyuan grew up in a traditional neighborhood in Shanghai's Hongkou district. [Photo provided to China Daily]

A tough journey to fame

Despite having the ideal physique, teachers at the ballet school criticized Tan for lacking strength in her movements. They even said she was "as soft as noodle".

"I used to cry a lot. One of the teachers, Lin Meifang, gave me two choices, saying that I can either continue crying or train harder. I chose the latter," said Tan.

It is no secret that the training routines for ballet dancers can be extremely difficult and repetitive. While Tan does not regret her career choice, her father thinks that she has paid a heavy price for her passion, pointing out the numerous injuries suffered over the years and how she never got to enjoy her childhood because of the hectic training and performance schedules.

In 1991, Tan won her first medal in an international arena when she finished second in the Helsinki Ballet competition. The next year, she won the Nijinsky award at the All Japan International Ballet Competition in Nagoya. The prize, which was named after the legendary Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, had previously been exclusive to adult male dancers.

The 1992 International Ballet Competition in Paris marked a turning point in Tan's career. She was initially overwhelmed with stage fright because the theater floor of the Paris Opera House where the competition took place had a 15-degree tilt, a design characteristic aimed at allowing audiences to appreciate the feet movements of ballet dancers.

Tan recalled how Lin "gave me a kick on the back" before sending her onto the stage. This seemingly hardline approach worked wonders. Tan danced so well that the 82-year-old Galina Ulanova, who was one of the judges, gave her a perfect score.

Tan later won a scholarship and moved to Stuttgart, Germany, to further her ballet training. During her time in Germany, Helgi Tomasson, the artistic director and principal choreographer at the San Francisco Ballet, got in touch with Tan. He told her that she would become the company's youngest solo dancer should she accept his invitation.

In 1995, Tan joined the San Francisco Ballet. Just two years later, at the tender age of 18, Tan became the company's solo dancer. Tan was only 20 years old when she was promoted to principal dancer.

"When I saw Yuanyuan perform all those years ago, I knew she had a very rare gift," said Tomasson. "What makes her so special is her work ethic, her ability to absorb a dizzying range of styles and choreography, and her capacity to perform at the highest level of excellence."

Tomasson added that he was especially impressed with her performance in John Neumeier's The Little Mermaid which premiered in 2010.

"Yuanyuan was indeed the mermaid: tortured, determined and utterly vulnerable. At the end of her performance that night, she was not the only one holding back tears," he said.

Tan also considers this particular performance to be among the most memorable because the story served as a reflection of her journey in ballet.

"I felt I was the mermaid. I fell in love with ballet because of its beauty, but didn't realize it was such a cruel art, that there was great pain with every step I took. It was like walking on blades. Sometimes I hated the pain and attempted to run away, but the more the pain, the deeper my love for this art form," Tan said.

"Before the performance, I thought I had already arrived at the pinnacle of my dancing career. After the show, however, I felt that I still had not achieved my full potential."

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