Artist’s Spotlight: Yuan Yuan Tan


Story has it, San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Yuan Yuan Tan’s career once hinged on one precipitous toss of a coin (ironically and coincidentally a Chinese yuan). She was ten, born and raised in Shanghai by traditional-minded Chinese parents. Her father was against the idea of her training to become a ballet dancer (too Western, too immodest), even as her mother supported it. Heads or tails—doctor or ballet dancer?

Dance, as you can guess, won the toss. Yuan Yuan (pronounced in two syllables, like “ren-ren,” only with a distinctive Y sound just before) commenced her training at the Shanghai Dance School at age eleven. There, she worked hard, she learned, she conquered. She began to compete internationally and in 1992 she took first place in the junior female division at the fifth International Ballet Competition in Paris. It was here that San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson first saw Tan perform. She made a considerable impression and in 1995, her training complete, she was invited to join the company as a soloist.

She was promoted to principal two years later, at the tender age of twenty. She’s been there since, and for a generation of San Francisco Ballet audience members, she has been an icon. I consider there to be a handful of dancers that define all that is exceptional, extraordinary and world-class about the San Francisco Ballet. I’d hate to pick a favorite here, but if I had to, taking into mind Yuan Yuan Tan’s years and years of extraordinary performing, it would be her.

As big of a name that Yuan Yuan Tan is among the West Coast’s ballet cognoscenti, she is a far bigger name in her homeland of China, as one of only a very few Chinese ballet dancers to reach the rank of principal dancer at a major international ballet company. She is beloved by many, has been featured in the Chinese versions of Vogue, Esquire, and Tatler, named one of “Asia’s Heroes” by the Asian edition of Time in 2004, gracing the issue’s cover, and serves as inspiration to countless aspiring, young, Chinese ballet dancers.

She is one of the most fascinating ballerinas in the world to watch. As she dances, particularly within the confines of a contemporary ballet, she is as fleet as a cat, a long-legged bird. She seems to be all limbs sometimes, and she does so much with those limbs, it puts you into a sort of hypnotic trance to watch how she eats up the space while still remaining so serene and grounded at her core. There is something demure and self-effacing about her as well. It strikes me as a sort of “Chinese” modesty, a tendency to demur, to downplay one’s tremendous talents. Another extraordinary global superstar of the San Francisco Ballet would be principal dancer Maria Kochetkova, who seems to be the opposite. Flamboyant, passion incarnate, short and fiery, she commands attention, makes you unable to watch anyone but her, there on the stage.

But we’ll save any further elaboration of Kochetkova for an “artist spotlight” of her own. I will say this about the two of them, however. They are both unforgettable and irreplaceable dancers. I cringe to think of what will happen the day the San Francisco Ballet loses either of them. And Yuan Yuan has been dancing with them for eighteen years now (and is now, as well, a guest principal artist with the Hong Kong Ballet, since May 2008).

Simply put, Yuan Yuan Tan is a treasure, an icon. May the San Francisco Ballet and its patrons be graced by her lovely presence for many seasons to come.

Here she is, in a searing excerpt from Lar Lubovitch’s Othello, dancing with Desmond Richardson:

And if you’re someone who just can’t get enough video footage of the dancers, like myself, here’s an SFB in-studio footage of both Yuan Yuan Tan and Maria Kochetkova, as well, which gives you the chance to compare these two SFB superstars side by side. Ballet master Jane Bourne, there with the SFB to stage Onegin, discusses the ballet.

And here’s Yuan Yuan talking about the ballet, RAkU, with some gorgeous onstage footage:

© 2013 Terez Rose

4 thoughts on “Artist’s Spotlight: Yuan Yuan Tan”

  1. Nice article. I would take issue with “only Chinese ballet dancer to reach the rank of principal dancer at a major international ballet company”, though. Just off the top of my head I can name Xiao Nan Yu at the National Ballet of Canada and Chi Cao at Birmingham Royal Ballet, both of them companies I would rank at the same level as SFB.

  2. Donna, the Othello is just astonishing, isn’t it? I saw it for the first time several years ago – it really hooked me on the extraordinary nature of Yuan Yuan’s dancing. And Desmond Richardson – wow. Such incredible acting in that piece.

    Katherine, oh, boy, thank you for catching that!! Ironically, I pulled that reference from another article, something I saw referenced in other articles as well. You are absolutely right, and what’s really interesting to me is that, with these two other dancers you mentioned, they, along with YY, joined their respective companies around the same time – in the mid-to-late 1990’s. What a spurt of amazing talent from Chinese-born dancers at the same time. …And now I’m thinking of the movie MAO’S LAST DANCER, and how he joined the Houston Ballet, and surely he was made principal, but I don’t remember the details or the dancer’s name. Just that he was Chinese and the movie was absolutely wonderful.

    Thanks, Katherine, and I’m off to tweak that line!


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