Whether you realized it at the time or not, you have probably been exposed to yellowface portrayals of Asian people, performed by non-Asians (and most-most often, by white people). The Orphan of China play in the mid-1700s is one of the first documented examples of yellowface, and The Good Earth film from 1937 won Luise Rainer an Academy Award for playing a Chinese peasant. Although less exaggerated, these stereotyped performances persist today – even in the dance world. Enter Phil Chan and Georgina Pazcoguin’s Final Bow for Yellowface campaign.
Jenn Fang’s informative article for Teen Vogue explains both yellowface and whitewashing, if you’d like to know more.
Final Bow for Yellowface
In 2017, former NYCB artistic director Peter Martins found himself in a bind. He did not know how to tweak the ‘Chinese Tea Dance’ scene in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker; how could he remove the yellowface elements of the Chinese-themed dance that offended his audience members, while preserving the beloved tradition for balletomanes? Phil Chan, who had previously felt humiliated and alienated by this scene, helped Martins to navigate changes in both the choreography and costuming. From here, Chan and Georgina Pazcoguin formed the Final Bow for Yellowface non-profit organization, asking artists to take the following pledge:
“I love ballet as an art form, and acknowledge that to achieve diversity among our artists, audiences, donors, students, volunteers, and staff requires inclusion. I am committed to eliminating outdated and offensive stereotypes of Asians (Yellowface) on our stages.”– Final Bow For Yellowface pledge
In addition to The Nutcracker, Final Bow for Yellowface can consult with companies that would like to eliminate insulting choreography and caricatures from their works. Popular problematic productions include La Bayadere (ballet), Scheherezade (ballet), The King and I (musical theater), Miss Saigon (musical theater), Madama Butterfly (opera) and Nixon in China (opera).
Interview with Phil Chan
Today we interview Phil Chan, both co-founder of Final Bow for Yellowface and author of Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing between Intention and Impact.
Hello Phil, thanks so much for taking the time to answer some questions about Final Bow for Yellowface.
When you originally launched the project, shortly after assisting the 2017 New York City Ballet Artistic Director to amend the Chinese tea dance scene in George Balanchine’s Nutcracker, did you realize how many representatives from various dance organizations would sign the pledge to eliminate harmful Asian stereotypes from their dance productions?
It was our end goal, but we didn’t realize it would happen so quickly. Following the conversation with Peter Martins, we asked ourselves, if New York City Ballet is open to the conversation and willing to change, why not every other company in the country?
We both had busy day jobs, we couldn’t call every dance company and small studio around the country to ask them to please consider updating their Nutcracker “Chinese” dance. We realized we only needed to reach a few key gatekeepers – the artistic directors of the top ballet companies in the country – in order to create a trickle down effect for how to have this conversation in a constructive way across the field.
Ahh, that makes sense. With NYCB already on board, other ballet companies would be more eager to follow.
What are some of the major milestones that Final Bow for Yellowface has achieved thus far?
I think our first mention in the New York Times in November of 2017 was really what put the topic on the radar for a lot of people. I think it was such an interesting story, to show how something that has historically been so exclusive [was] working to change to be inclusive while still retaining a steadfast commitment to tradition.
I was really happy to see this work replicated by Kansas City advocate Kerry Voyles, who started a Change.org petition to convince Kansas City Ballet to engage in this conversation. We’re grateful that they did as a result of Kerry’s advocacy, and they signed our pledge last October. It signaled to us that this movement was more than just us and the website, but local advocates were also speaking up to help their companies do better as well.
A big milestone has definitely also been this past Nutcracker season, where we secured the support of almost every major American ballet company, as well as our first major international signees like the Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Scottish Ballet, and the Australian Ballet. The conversation has definitely been welcome in places with diverse audiences.
On a personal level, this past Chinese New Year was especially meaningful, because I finished the draft of Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing between Intention and Impact, which distills the past two years of conversation on this topic onto a resource performing arts organizations can refer to when staging classic works which feature outdated representation of “other” or “exotic” racial groups. It was nice to finally get a lot of this work off my chest!
Gaining the support of big ballet companies in the UK and Australia, in addition to the major US companies, is quite an achievement.
When you initiate conversations with companies and choreographers who are unintentionally guilty of creating yellow face caricatures, how do you get them to listen – rather than turning defensive?
The subtitle of my book is “dancing between intention and impact,” which is the key communication approach we’ve adopted when having this sensitive, delicate, and sometimes difficult and triggering conversation. Instead of questioning someone’s intention (“You’re racist!”), we instead focus on the impact (“Did you mean for the Chinese dance to look like an ugly caricature that might offend audience members?”) It’s in this space that constructive and positive conversations can happen, and when choreographers can creatively ask themselves, “Okay – what else can this dance be?”
How can dance companies prevent yellowface from popping up into their productions?
Does it mean hiring choreographers with an in-depth knowledge of Chinese culture – and historians to hold discussions with costumers? Or running ideas past a voluntary panel of culturally sensitive people?
It’s a combination of a lot of those things. Hiring Chinese artists to contribute as directors, costume designers, playwrights, composers, and choreographers. Do your homework about what you’re presenting. Bringing in focus groups of people of Asian descent to ask how the work lands with them (we are the only ones who are experts at what it feels like to live as Asian people and have images of our cultures reflected and distorted back to us).
Not shying away from the conversation but bringing it to the forefront of the experience for audiences. Make it a teaching moment. Use it as an opportunity to start a conversation within the community. Make changes when needed (like changing make-up or costuming, tweaking dialogue, etc). I outline a series of best practices in my book, it can feel like a lot of work but if a performing arts organization doesn’t feel like it has the resources to commit to doing the work at this level, perhaps they should consider other repertory. Meaning, if you can’t find an Asian woman to sing Cio Cio San, maybe do La Boheme instead of Madama Butterfly?
Although it’s a lot easier to shy away from conversations, you’re right; there’s much to be gained from consulting the larger community.
At what point will Final Bow For Yellowface have accomplished its mission? Will proactive prevention remain necessary – and/or will you pair it with other initiatives to elevate Asian American dance artists and choreographers?
For example, you are also a professional writer. Would you consider educating writers about harmful ways that Asian dances, Asian dancers and/or Asian people are portrayed with words?
We’ve been addressing one side of this coin so far: how Asians have been represented on stage. But there’s so much more work to be done offstage as well. I can think of only three Asians who have made work for a major American ballet company. Out of the 360 Dance Magazine Awards given out since 1954, only three Asians have been recognized. As far as I can tell, Ed Liang at BalletMet is the only Asian American to ever run a ballet company with a budget of over $5M. So we have more work to do. I can name on one hand the Asians who have premiered work at a major American company.
And yes, there are a few more books jiggling inside of me asking to be written. Stay tuned…
Will do! But first, is there anything you’d like to share about the experience of writing your book, Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing between Intention and Impact – or any of the feedback that you received?
It was incredibly empowering to get my story into words, to tell it my way. I’m really pleased that it’s being well received by my non-Asian friends and colleagues, who have said that it’s helped them understand the dynamics at play when discussing diversity, equity, and inclusion. But I’m most proud of the positive reception from the Asian American community I’ve received so far. It feels good to be able to contribute to better representations of Asians when we are currently being demonized the world over because of the Coronavirus outbreak.
I think it’s hard to effectively explain how important representation is to people who have always seen themselves in the story – and as heroes, rather than stooges and worse. But I agree that better representations are much needed, especially as ignorant people fuel anti-Asian sentiment.
In the US, we have both Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Ballet Hispánico that represent the experiences of Black Americans and Latin Americans respectively. Do you feel that there’s a major company that represents Asian American experiences?
Nope. And maybe it’s time someone started one.
I think the feeling is that Asians are at least in the room, even if not fully at the table, compared to other ethnic groups. Therefore there is less of a perceived need for distinct Asian voices. I think the way forward means both making more opportunities for Asians to make work, but also to make sure we use our privileges to advocate for more opportunities for our Black, Latinx, and Indigenous colleagues as well.
Outside of dance, there’s lots of talk of allyship (or lack thereof) between different ethnic minority groups. Do you feel that there is a certain level of BAME support and solidarity in the dance sector?
Not in classical ballet, no. I don’t think we are very good at talking about race in general, but we are getting better. There’s a section where I touch on that in my book called, “Well, What Are You Going to Do About Arabian?” which was a question asked by dance critic Alastair Macaulay during one of our public talks. I don’t think that’s my responsibility to fix – I think it is OURS. If ballet no longer reflects our truths, it becomes irrelevant and dies.
There have been multiple discussions about how dance academic environments are biased towards ballet and modern, relegating all other dance techniques from around the world as electives.
If you could select an essential core course for dance majors, what would it be?
Being pragmatic, ballet and modern are the cornerstones of academic dance because they are the disciplines dance students are most likely to have a career in the West in those art forms due to larger systemic inequalities. Until dance companies from minority groups receive the same level of attention, public funding, audience support, prestige, and proximity to wealth, this unequal academic system will remain intact. I’m not saying that’s right, but that’s just the reality for the time being.
Within this existing framework however, I think it’s very important for dance students to understand that ballet and modern are also ethnic dances, and to treat them as such. Once you do, you’re able to see they have equal weight as other forms of ethnic and folk dances that might often be seen as more a product of ethnic culture and less “universal.” With that more global lens, dance students should be challenged to study other forms of dance, while being better equipped to critically question the structures and dynamics at play that uphold ballet and modern and keep other forms less prevalent.
That is a good reminder that ballet and modern are ethnic dances, too, even if they regularly enjoy the status quo of hegemonies.
It will be interesting to see how the professional and academic dance worlds continue to evolve with our communities, especially as we remain in and come out of lockdown. I know many dancers are hoping for a more inclusive community.
Thanks very much for sharing your time and insight into Final Bow for Yellowface, as well as your perspectives on Asian representation in dance.
We’ll be celebrating alongside you as more companies pledge to remove yellowface from their productions and you work to remedy outdated Asian caricatures in performances.
Were you surprised to learn that problematic yellowface was part of so many famous theatre and dance productions? Don’t forget to check out Final Bow for Yellowface, sign their petition and check out Phil Chan’s book for additional insight!