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Oakland Ballet

AAPI choreographers join forces in new Oakland ballet that breaks racial stereotypes

on March 10, 2023

Unabashed joy takes center stage at this year’s Oakland Ballet Dancing Moons Festival, which features what may be a first for an American ballet company — a new, all-Asian American Pacific Islander choreographed program.

The main ballet, “Exquisite Corpse,” is a new piece making its premiere at the festival, which the Oakland Ballet has hosted for the past two years in collaboration with the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. Co-choreographed by Phil Chan, Seyong Kim, and Elaine Kudo, the ballet merges distinctive pieces into a uniquely eccentric whole. It will be performed March 16 through 18 at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, and April 7 and 8 at the Presidio Theatre in San Francisco.

Chan was instrumental in starting the festival to counter the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. The festival also reflects his continuous efforts to eliminate anti-Asian stereotypes in ballet with Final Bow for Yellowface, a nonprofit he co-founded in 2017 with Georgina Pazcoguin, a dancer with the New York City Ballet. Chan said there’s been a significant shift since Final Bow launched. 

“I’ve seen a willingness to replace Orientalist stereotypes and stories with commissions and work by Asian choreographers,” he said. “We’re just now getting to that point where, you know, companies that hadn’t previously ever commissioned Asian choreographers are now having them in the pipeline if they haven’t already commissioned the work and performed it.”

A Berkeley High alum, Chan spent much of his childhood in the Bay Area before taking root in New York City in 2006. He’s been a catalyst for authentic Asian American representation in the ballet, which until recently had tolerated offensive caricatures of Asians.

Oakland Ballet
Rebecca Huang (front center) and other dancers rehearse for the Dancing Moons Festival. (Nadia Lathan)

“The Nutcracker” was the biggest offender and remains the primary target of Chan and Pazcoguin’s advocacy. Traditional showings of the holiday ballet feature dancers wearing saffron-colored makeup and Fu Manchu mustaches, and using distasteful hand gestures with both index fingers pointed upward to signal what UC Irvine dance professor Jennifer Fisher called “Chinese-ness” in a 2018 Los Angeles Times op-ed. Movements such as dancers bobbing back and forth and taking tiny kowtow steps also are painful portrayals of Asian Americans by restraining them to a singular kind of depiction: compliant and deferential.

“The finger-pointing is mostly an example of heedless insensitivity to stereotyping,” Fisher wrote, adding that its origins aren’t entirely clear but possibly came from a traditional Mongolian dance where fingers are used to represent chopsticks. The authenticity of these behaviors are inaccurate and, according to Fisher, injurious in their carelessness.

Racist themes in “The Nutcracker” and other performances date to the 19th century when European composers and czars sought to infuse Asian influences in ballet out of both intrigue and a desire to assert control. 

Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker worked to “centralize,” or simplify, Asian culture, Fisher said in a phone interview. As ballet became a cultural force in Russia, orientalism — the depiction of Asiatic peoples from a Eurocentric point of view — acted as an extension of colonialism that reinforced a racial hierarchy.

Although “The Nutcracker” wasn’t very popular when it debuted in Russia in 1892, its idealistic tone and rags-to-riches story appealed to American audiences as ballet traveled further west throughout the 20th century. Despite its problematic origins, “The Nutcracker” remains a beloved ballet and the lifeboat keeping numerous small to mid-size companies afloat.

Fisher has spent the last 20 years pushing back on its stereotypes after publishing “Nutcracker Nation: How an Old World Ballet Became a Christmas Tradition in the New World” in 2003. But it would take Chan and Pazcoguin’s Beyond Yellow Face campaign and 2020’s racial reckoning before artistic directors would alter their adaptations of “The Nutcracker” to remove yellow makeup, Fu Manchu mustaches, and pointed fingers.

Fisher believes the reason this tidal shift took so long and is happening now rather than 20 years earlier is because ballet, a historically traditional and conservative art form, had no choice but to evolve with the changing world it inhabited. As a result of growing demands for equitable treatment and representation across industries in recent years, most Nutcracker performances today are sensitive to their portrayal of Asians, Fisher said.

Exquisite and outlandish

In “Exquisite Corpse” dancers drift seamlessly between rigid movements with arms spread out and legs locked to softer postures with slacked elbows and knees pointing inward. The sprung wooden dance floor absorbs each prance forward and pirouette on pointe.

Performers worked alongside the choreographers to create what dancer Ashley Thopiah described as a fun, experimental and collaborative process. This is her fourth year with Oakland Ballet and second time performing in the festival. By participating in such works, she seeks to use ballet as a tool for social change.

“I think it’s about keeping the intensity and passion of ballet, but leaving behind changing aspects that are harmful to people,” Thopiah said. The festival, she added, “is really about restructuring the system to make it more accessible for dancers of color to break barriers.”

“Exquisite Corpse” was inspired by a 1920s game of the same name in which players draw body parts on a sheet of paper to create a single disjointed figure. The “exquisite corpse” is a surrealist expression meant to embody the absurd and hyperbolic, the fantastical and outlandish.

“I’m happy to be part of something that is specifically Asian,” said Kudo, who had retired from dancing and choreography until Oakland Ballet Artistic Director Graham Lustig nudged her to join the project.

Lustig has supported endeavors to showcase a more diverse cast of dancers and choreographers. The director helped introduce “Luna Mexicana,” an elaborate Dia de los Muertos festival, to Oakland Ballet in 2016, and says that he’s always been cognizant of how few Latinx and Asian artists there are in ballet. He’s grateful for the opportunity to change that and to bring AAPI cultures and artistry to the stage. 

“I’m very lucky to have this job,” Lustig said. 

He worked at American Repertory Ballet in New Jersey for 10 years before taking the helm at the Oakland Ballet in 2010. It took 10 more years after that for Lustig to cross paths with Chan, who has helped elevate Oakland Ballet to a household name. 

“To talk with Phil is inspiring,” Lustig said. “It’s great to have his input, his support.”

In addition to the new ballet, the Dancing Moons Festival features two other pieces choreographed by Chan — “Amber Waves,” and “Ballet des Porcelaines” — as well as “Layer Upon Layer,” choreographed by Caili Quan.

Chan, who choreographed a reimagined interpretation of Ballet des Porcelaines for last year’s show, said “Exquisite Corpse” is more of a cheerful expression than a repudiation of stereotypical norms. The purpose of the piece rests solely with each choreographer’s interpretation.

Tickets and more information about the show are available at oaklandballet.org.

The story was published in collaboration with The Oaklandside.

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