For Tan Yuanyuan, ballet is not only about technique, it is how you dance with your heart to touch your audience. Chen Jie reports
In 1999, San Francisco Ballet's principal dancer Tan Yuanyuan was invited to dance at the White House for President Bill Clinton and Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji. After the performance, Premier Zhu asked the Shanghai-born ballerina, "Ballet is hard, isn't it? My granddaughter wants to learn ballet, what do you think?"
"It's good for a girl to learn ballet as a hobby, but as a profession, you'd better think it over," Tan answered.
"To be a ballerina means you must be very tough both physically and mentally. The basic training at the beginning is somehow boring and you can get injured often. The life is simple, from home to rehearsal room to stage," Tan told China Daily at a caf near Tokyo's National Noh Theater.
The 34-year-old performed W.B.Yeats' Noh-influenced play At the Hawk's Well with actor Gensho Umewaka and dancer Kaiji Moriyama in Tokyo and Osaka late last month.
Magnetism is the best word to describe Tan's allure, both on and off stage. Dressed in the gorgeous handmade Japanese costume made especially for the Noh theater, she executes otherworldly leaps and turns and pirouettes.
Utterly in control of her lithe, 167-cm body, she moves with such technical precision she appears to be flying on autopilot. But off stage, washing off the make up, her hair loose and wearing a causal black T-shirt and jeans, Tan dissolves into a pretty puckish woman who likes to put her hand over her mouth to stifle a giggle.
Tan remembers her first impression of ballet was seeing a performance of Swan Lake on TV when she was 5, after which she taught herself to walk en pointe.
In 1987, teachers of the Shanghai Ballet School went to Tan's primary school to pick talents. The 11-year-old Tan who was climbing the pole on the playground caught their eyes. With a perfect physical condition, Tan was one of the 24, among more than 1,000 applicants, that passed the audition.
However, Tan's engineer father wanted his daughter to follow in his footsteps. "My father said dancing was a frivolous career with a short life span while mother supported my choice. They argued and then settled the matter by flipping a coin. It came up heads, and I finally went to the ballet school," Tan recalls.
The young Tan did not like the intense training at first. "It was boring and tedious and I did not do well in the tests. Feeling somehow depressed for a time I even regretted my decision," Tan says.
Things changed in the second year. Teacher Lin Meifang discovered Tan's potential and gave her additional training after class.
Tan rediscovered her confidence and desire to dance after winning several dance competitions in China. And her first breakthrough came in 1992 when she won the gold medal at the International Ballet Competition in Paris.
Because of jet leg and not acclimatized to the condition, Tan did not feel well after arrival. Then she found the stage had a slope of 15 degrees but in China she always danced on the flat stage. She was so upset before the competition that she told Lin she could not dance.
"I can feel Lin herself was nervous too. Her trembling hands painted my eyebrows one higher than the other. But she said 'you must go' and almost kicked me to leap onto stage - the piece I was going to perform just starts from a leap," Tan says.
The 82-year-old Russian ballerina Galina Ulanova, chairwoman of the jury, gave Tan a full score. Tan also caught the eye of another judge, Helgi Tomasson, San Francisco Ballet's artistic director who invited her to San Francisco to perform Nutcracker Suite after the competition and thereafter offered her a position with his troupe as a soloist.
In 1995, the 19-year-old Tan left home alone and became the youngest soloist in the history of San Francisco Ballet.
Tan's talent and determination helped her become one of the world's top ballerinas and the most critically acclaimed dancer ever to emerge from China. In October 2004, she was named a "hero of Asia" in the Asian edition of Time magazine.
Now in her prime, Tan's dedication keeps her focused amid the distraction of fame. She still works 13 hours a day, six days a week and gives more than 100 shows a year. "I always have to try harder. What the choreographer wants or the audience wants is endless, never enough, never good enough," she says.
Tan likes to dance "deep and rich" roles such as Giselle, instead of the simply pretty White Swan or Sleeping Beauty. She also tends to explore the contemporary pieces or crossover forms such as Noh theater.
Seven years ago, the Japanese producer Tomoko Nishio invited choreographer Toru Shimazaki to create a modern ballet for Tan, which was warmly received in Japan. After that, Nishio suggested Tan perform At the Hawk's Well.
Tan's latest ballet work is the renowned choreographer John Neumeier's The Little Mermaid.
"It is a life-time experience to dance John Neumiere's The Little Mermaid," Tan says. "It is very dramatic, emotional and very different from anything I have done."
"Ulanova told me when I won the competition in Paris, that ballet is not only about the technique, it is how you dance with your own heart to touch your audience. In The Little Mermaid, I really felt it. And the work I most hope to dance next is his Lady of Camellias," she says.
Ballet takes up almost all of Tan's life. Asked about her free time, the first answer is rest and taking massage to protect her feet. Still single, she complains she has no time to develop and maintain a relationship and envies some of her former classmates who have had children.
She occasionally goes shopping or to the movies with friends and reads Western philosophers such as Plato to enrich herself. If in a bad mood, she likes to drive her convertible with the music on loud to the beach alone.
At 34 and with several career-shortening injuries, Tan is not sure how long she will be able to continue dancing. She is learning costume and set design now and hopes to return to Shanghai and open her own ballet school.
"I did not choose my life, life pushed me in this direction. If the coin had landed on the other side, I might be a doctor or an engineer today. Life is never predictable and one never knows how one's decision today can affect the rest of one's life," Tan says.