Who would have guessed that one short conversation with New York City Ballet Artistic Director Peter Martins would change the course of how we approach America’s favorite holiday ballet, and serve as a catalyst for changing how we talk about race in America?
Phil Chan, arts advocate and co-founder of Final Bow for Yellowface, chronicles his journey navigating conversations around race, representation, and inclusion arising from issues in presenting one short dance—the Chinese variation from The Nutcracker. Armed with new vocabulary, he recounts his process and pitfalls in advising Salt Lake City’s Ballet West on the presentation of a lost Balanchine work from 1925, Le Chant du Rossignol.
Chan encounters orientalism, cultural appropriation, and yellowface, and witnesses firsthand the continuing evolution of an Old World aristocratic dance form in a New World democratic environment. As a storyteller, Chan presents a mix of dance and Chinese American history, personal anecdotes, and best practices for any professional arts organization to use for navigating issues around race, while outlining an essential path American ballet must take in order for our beloved art form to stay alive for a growingly diverse 21st century audience.
An inspiring and overdue call-to-action
In Final Bow for Yellowface, Phil Chan narrates his personal account leading long overdue yellowface activism in the ballet world. His writing is full of personality as well as scholarship. While his outlook is positive, the meat is between the lines where we see micro-aggressions and systemic power structures still pervading this conservative arts sector. Chan’s call-to-action is a rich, difficult and needed alternative to 21st century cancel-culture. His book and ongoing fieldwork with his collaborator Georgina Pazcoguin inspires me, and hopefully others, to join the difficult work ahead across the performing arts.