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Banishing Orientalism

Phil Chan wants to get one thing straight: his work is the opposite of cancel culture. As co-founder of the organization Final Bow for Yellowface, Chan has long called for updating the obsolete stage representations of Asians and has even encouraged arts leaders to sign a pledge committing to the elimination of these damaging stereotypes. It is an advocacy he pursues in writing, teaching, consulting, directing, and choreographing.

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His first book, with Michelle Chase—Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing Between Intention and Impact, from 2020—focused on the many issues that emerge from the Chinese Dance in the canonical “Nutcracker.” In a new book out this month—Banishing Orientalism: Dancing Between Exotic and Familiar—Chan (with Chase again) expands his scope to interrogate the long arc of Orientalism in ballet. But rather than demanding that ballet abandon its quintessential and, yes, offensively Orientalist works, Chan makes a compelling case for reimagining them.

By way of introduction, it might be most telling to begin with the book’s end, where a list of Orientalist ballets can be found. The list is long and, we might assume, exhaustive. Yet, Chan tells me, Orientalism is so rampant that these are just the “big ones.” (And this is just in ballet.) While many of these ballets dropped out of the repertory long ago, others have stayed with us for hundreds of years. Even worse, as the chronological list lays out, new Orientalist ballets are still being created.

Phil Chan. Photograph by Eli Schmidt

Chan offers this daunting list as more than a final indictment—though clearly it is one. In this highly readable book, the list could also be taken as a creative challenge. Chan’s research suggests that Orientalism spurred many innovations—from the extravagant spectacles transferred from court to stage to large corps de ballet numbers to new ways for beloved ballerinas to move and act, with newfound freedom and agency (not to mention eroticism). Throughout, he reiterates a surprising thesis: “Ballet as we know it today owes a great deal of its creative development to Orientalism.”

This insight and the accompanying case studies—pulled from centuries of ballet history, from Louis XIV to the Ballets Russes to Béjart and, in more recent times, Northern Ballet—provides a thought-provoking context for understanding Chan’s main claim, that Orientalism’s othering has become too objectionable, as well as too silly and stale, to carry on in its current form.

In the right hands, “Banishing Orientalism” could serve as a task-based movement score, with the aim of elevating the most compelling and universal aspects of ballet tradition while engaging audiences with fresh and relevant stories, voices, and perspectives. Chan does this through prompts that spark the imagination as well as numerous examples of potential librettos, some pushing into the future and others re-examining the past. He also profiles three cross-cultural partnerships that transpired in three different eras, including a firsthand account of the collaboration between the acclaimed British-Bangladeshi dancer-choreographer Akram Khan and the French ballerina Sylvie Guillem.

It’s refreshing to see the future of ballet through Chan’s eyes and, dare I say, fun. “My first book was about being biracial, seeing the world from multiple perspectives,” he explains. “I see ‘La Bayadère’ as both an important work of European history and something that could be tweaked to be respectful to and inclusive of Indian people. It doesn’t have to be either/or.” While proffering such an expansive and syncretic approach comes naturally to Chan, he makes this way of seeing easy for everyone.

Yet he doesn’t shy away from the most uncomfortable and tragic consequences of Orientalism. In a later chapter, he unpacks the traits that make up three dangerous archetypes of Oriental women and links the darker elements of this fantasy to violence in the real world, citing the tragic example of the Atlanta spa shooting in 2021, among too many others.

When I caught up with Chan over Zoom in mid-January, he was spending time in the stacks at Harvard University spying out more ghosts of Orientalism past. We spoke at length about his research, his hopes for the book’s change-making potential, the development of a new production of “La Bayadère,” and the toll this anti-racist work has taken on him.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

It’s obvious from “Banishing Orientalism” that you want to see this anti-racist work in practice. Who do you see as your primary audience?

I’m just looking at our field and the history of Final Bow for Yellowface. We were able to get all of this change to happen because we changed the minds of ten to twenty people—the artistic directors of ballet companies. We’ve seen this beautiful trickle to smaller companies, bigger companies— in all different directions. We can really shape the field through realizing the ecosystem we’re working with. There are artistic directors who talk to each other once a month about what they are producing. I don’t need to make sure every audience member is educated on the future and then have them write letters to demand change. It’s really about how we get this small handful of people to change their thinking. And the reality is, most artistic directors are not scholars. These are former star dancers, who were trained to be dancers and now are good at fundraising, giving company class, and being artistic tastemakers, but they aren’t necessarily reading Edward Said at night, you know, to relax. So my goal in writing this book was to get those people to see what is problematic but also what is the potential for the future.

I’m also finding, with “Final Bow,” that a lot of the people reading the book are audience members, board members, college students, the next generation of artists. They are reading and now asking, how do we talk to our director about this? They send me messages on Instagram. They’re uncomfortable. They don’t have the vocabulary and the framework to talk about it, but they know that putting on a turban and running around like apes onstage doesn’t feel right. And so this book was a way to put into words some of their discovery. I really wanted to make it very accessible. I didn’t want it to focus on theory or history but rather to feel like a real context for looking at active repertory that remains unquestioned or unchallenged.

The tone of your writing is playful.

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, creativity is playful. My favorite game is “What else can it be?” That’s my favorite question. You have a pen. It’s a pen, it’s a sword. It’s a magic wand. It’s a broomstick, it’s a spaceship. We are told to grow up. But as creatives we need to be playful, open, especially when it comes to issues of race. Because when you talk about race, it is easy to get defensive. It’s serious and heavy—you don’t want to say the wrong thing. Yet you need an open mind to have constructive conversations and shift your biases.

One of the most surprising things about the book for me was how your research revealed that Orientalist ballets acted as a creative generator for the art form.

I think that’s what is missing from this conversation, that nuance. [Orientalist ballets] can be problematic and beautiful at the same time. I know, it feels impossible that something that’s racist can also be beautiful. And that’s why this conversation is hard. It’s not as easy as just saying, “Well, we have to get rid of it.” You have to be able to unpack the layers. You can’t just blow it up. What are we actually looking at? Why is it valuable? Why is it offensive? What is the future appeal for this work? Does it speak to a more universal human experience that’s worth showing? Those are all the questions you ask, hopefully, before you put any work onstage, even “The Nutcracker.” Why are we doing it this year, besides the money? What are we saying by doing it this year?

Were you surprised to find, through your research, that Orientalism led to so many innovations?

I was surprised. I came into it being very frustrated, like, wow, there’s so much of this racist nonsense, what do we even do with that? Then I started to think about why we spend so much money and time and resources reviving these works over and over again. The appeal isn’t just because we like wearing turbans and kimonos. What’s the deeper reason for telling stories that take place over there as opposed to over here, of pretending to be one of those people over there as opposed to one of us over here? What can we only do when we are somebody else? And it was in that thinking that I started to see these threads of innovation—of scale, color, personalities, emotions, ways of moving, rhythms, and musicality—all these rules broken everywhere, because it was safe for us to break those rules because it was over there.

We’re called Orientals because we oriented Europeans to where they were. When we didn’t know what other people looked like, what their music sounded like, how they moved, or what their cultural practices were, we made it up. It’s an opulent fantasy where all the rules are broken, and I think that is the value.

The problem is that it no longer works. In a multiracial society, this kind of innovation happens at the expense of real cultures. When you see a coolie with a queue and yellow face and a rice paddy hat and a Fu Manchu mustache at every ballet company in the world, it says, this is how we see Chinese people. And then you go home to your family who’s Chinese, or you go to dim sum with your Chinese friends, or you talk to your coworkers who are Chinese, and this is not what you [or they] look like, this is not what you sound like, this is not how you walk, how you act. This is somebody else’s fantasy of you.

Hong Kong Ballet's “Romeo and Juliet” by Septime Weber. Photograph by Christopher Duggan

Recently I saw Hong Kong Ballet in Septime Weber’s “Romeo and Juliet” at New York City Center—set in the 1960s in Hong Kong—and though it wasn’t a reimagining of an Orientalist ballet, it still seemed like a great example of recentering a classic story ballet for a multicultural audience and city. A small thing of shifting the fight choreography to incorporate martial arts just felt so dynamic.

Septime was asking, “Okay, it’s a fight scene. We don’t fight with swords like that. So how do we fight? What else could this fight scene be?” He’s inspired by the kung fu movies of the ’60s. “What else could it be?” is the critical question. When you’re trying to recenter a work, you have to be open and playful. I thought it was very effective. Old Verona, that’s nice, but it feels so far away. A setting closer to home—I can see that being a good way to build audiences.

It seemed to be building audiences for ballet in New York, too. There were a lot of Asian people in the audience, and that’s not always the case here. It made me wonder how well companies know their cities. And do audiences still want full-length story ballets? Orientalist works are alienating large ethnic and racial groups that comprise a city, as you laid out with Philadelphia Ballet’s production of “La Bayadère” in their 2019-2020 season and the backlash from the community.

A few years ago, the National Ballet of China came through Lincoln Center. I go to the ballet quite a lot, I know people in the ballet community, and I did not recognize a single person. It was wild. It was a completely discrete audience from the New York City Ballet crowd, the American Ballet Theatre crowd. They were all Chinese people. And the second the curtain went up, everybody just moved further down, filling in the seats, and there were beer bottles rolling down. At the end of the ballet, there was someone singing one of the Chinese national songs. Everyone stood up and started singing. And I thought, this is how you’re supposed to engage with this work with a Chinese center. My point is, we’re moving away from Eurocentric to multiracial, so art needs to reflect that. And we need stories. Stories are a structure or a vessel for us to understand ourselves. We love narrative. The question is, do the stories always have to center around Europeans’ way of seeing the world?

MyBallet des Porcelaines” is from 1739. It’s a 20-minute fairytale with opulent costumes. There are no sets because we tour it around, we just do it wherever we can. It’s a complete, constructed story that has a nice arc. People want stories, but do we need “Sleeping Beauty” as a story? We’re asking the same questions about opera and television, right? What is enough time to tell the story that we want to tell? I mean, Petipa was doing four-hour ballets but also twenty-minute ballets.

“Ballet des Porcelaines” by Phil Chan. Photograph by Joe Carrotta

Your book and the experience of Hong Kong Ballet also made me wonder what role Asian representation—Asian dancers across the ranks, Asian choreographers, and Asian artistic staff—plays in audience demographics.

I would look at a couple things. So when a dancer trained at the Shanghai ballet academy where all of their teachers were Chinese, and they went home and spoke Shanghainese with their family, there were no barriers to their race. They danced Kitri and Odette/Odile. Then they are seen by an American ballet company and invited to join the second company, then the corps de ballet, and now she's working her way up to principal, right? But what about an Asian-American student who’s in the American company’s ballet school? New York City Ballet has never had an Asian, or Black, principal ballerina. You can look at Hee Seo, a principal at ABT, and say it’s not a problem. But when was the last time an Asian dancer graduated from the JKO school [ABT’s school] into the company?

We just did a survey last year with the Gold Standard Arts Foundation. The two places where we’re losing Asian Americans, specifically, is that 16 to 20 age group and after retirement. They don’t stay in the industry, as choreographers, as ballet rehearsal directors, as artistic directors, as mentors. They go back to college or back to Asia or become executives, but whatever they do next has nothing to do with dance.

What do you attribute that attrition to?

We’re not programming Asian choreographers. Kevin McKenzie was at ABT for thirty years and never commissioned an Asian choreographer for the stage. He commissioned one video piece by Zhong-Jing Fang, a soloist at the company, during Covid. Keerati Jinakunwiphat is making a new work this season for New York City Ballet but is only the second Asian choreographer since the company’s inception. Edwaard Liang was the first, and he is also the first and only artistic director of Asian descent in the United States. He’s also the only Asian choreographer to make work for San Francisco Ballet, a city with an historically high Asian population. So that’s what I’m seeing on the ground. And then we do this fantasy every year, you know, “The Nutcracker” Chinese, but we haven’t bothered to hire an Asian person to tell our story our way. Orientalism can be a great way to mask some of that lack of diversity because, look, we have a Chinese dance, we have a ballet that takes place in the Middle East, so what’s the problem?

Georgina Pazcoguin in “Ballet des Porcelaines” by Phil Chan. Photograph by Andrea Avezzu, copyright
Palazzo Grassi, Pinault Collection

How have these conditions influenced your own path as a choreographer?

I just started pushing my own choreography. When I first moved to New York, twenty years ago, I wasn’t getting any traction. Nobody was interested. I stopped because I looked around. I was like, “ABT will never hire you. So why are you going to try so hard? Like, you might as well go run into a brick wall. New York City Ballet is not going to hire you. So what’s the point? Don’t even try, put your energy into something else.” But I’m at the point now in my career where I have something to say, in this particular language. And I’m going to find the people who want to commission it and who want to support it and want to see it—there’s going to be a space for it.

Near the end of the book, you talk about a reimagined “La Bayadère”you are working on with [dance historian and musicologist] Doug Fullington, which will premiere at Indiana University in March of 2024. Can you take us there? I believe the setting is a kind of fantasy cowboy story . . .

The setting is the 1920s, Hollywood. They’re filming a cowboy musical, like “Singin’ in the Rain” if Nikiya was Debbie Reynolds and Solor was Gene Kelly. It still has the same congruent plot, there’s all the same political hierarchies and all of the rivalries, dynamics, and tensions. We’re also keeping close to the choreography, and we’re actually going back to notations done around the turn of the century. We’re clearing a lot of the additions, the Soviet things grafted on. We are keeping a couple of little nods—like the bronze idol is in there just because it’s a lot of fun. And in our production, it’s an Oscar statue [in] a film within the ballet. There’s also a dance for farmers, for falconers, for buckaroos. It’s Americana.

We’re also treating the score. There’s a brilliant musicologist named Larry Moore. He does a lot of the arranging for the Gershwin estate of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein. He’s rescoring the Minkus score to sound like Big Band swing [but with] banjo, vibraphone, tambourine. It’s going to sound like a jazz musical. We’re centering a multiracial America.

Diving deeper into the history of actual cowboys, it is quite a multiracial phenomenon. There were Black cowboys, Native American cowboys, Chinese cowboys, Jewish cowboys; everybody has been a cowboy. Any performer of any race can play any part in this production and it’s not weird.

Since Covid and George Floyd, “La Bayadère”has been otherwise canceled as a ballet. Ballet has been stuck. There is a sense that if we can’t do that version, then we just won’t do “La Bayadère.” That’s the reality for a lot of companies. But I don’t want to cancel it, just continue to change it organically the way our form has changed organically everywhere.

Where do you hope this production will go after the initial performances?

It’s definitely an Off-Broadway trial run, and we’re talking to a few special companies about picking up the production in the future. I’m hoping that by going through the process of remaking it, we can show that this is actually financially possible. It’s already made and you can pick it up.

Despite all the innovation that Orientalism has given ballet, there’s a cost, right?

If you’re not Asian and you’ve never had to pay the price, you might not have ever seen it before. We’re used to just saying, “Oh, isn’t ‘Madame Butterfly’ beautiful.” But we don’t understand that there was a price to pay, and most of us did not pay it, for you to enjoy that.

I leave at the end of the day so mentally exhausted from hours of looking at racially problematic material. It takes its toll. I’m more irritable, not sleeping well, less social. The emotional labor of this work is quite acute. “Final Bow” took me about ten weeks to write. This one took me two-and-a-half years. There’s just a different weight to it.

I get attacked on both sides for straddling the line. Either I’m a pawn of white supremacy for defending the values in our art form or I’m the PC police who’s canceled culture, a destroyer of tradition. But I really want to stress that this work is keeping tradition and heritage alive. And it’s not changing any more radically than we changed “Swan Lake,” from its original form to what we have now.

I’m hoping that this is something that people who are progressive, who want to see better representations of people of color, will latch on to, as well as people who are concerned that we’re changing too fast and want a sane way to talk about preservation. Hopefully we can get folks to meet in the middle and say, “Yes, we want to preserve heritage and tradition. And, yes, we want to be less racist.” Both of those things can happen at the same time. It’s not either/or, and I’m living proof it doesn’t have to be.

On Saturday February 4, 2023, from 3pm to 5pm, Chan will be giving a book talk at New York Library for the Performing Arts, at Lincoln Center. Register for the free event here.

Candice Thompson

Candice Thompson has been working in and around live art for over two decades. She was a dancer with Milwaukee Ballet before moving into costume design, movement education and direction, editing and arts writing. She attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, graduated from St. Mary’s College LEAP Program, and later received an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University. She has written extensively about dance for publications like Andscape, The Brooklyn Rail, Dance magazine, and ArtsATL, in addition to being editorial director for DIYdancer, a project-based media company she co-founded.



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