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'Final Bow for Yellowface' Project Co-Founders Decry Racist Portrayals of Asians in Classical Ballet

The Houghton Library hosted an online event on racism in ballet Tuesday.
The Houghton Library hosted an online event on racism in ballet Tuesday. By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By David R. Shaw, Contributing Writer

Co-founders of the “Final Bow for Yellowface” project discussed their efforts to confront and remove caricature-like portrayals of Asians in classical ballet at a virtual event hosted by Houghton Library Tuesday.

Phil Chan, author of “Final Bow For Yellowface: Dancing Between Intention and Impact,” began the panel discussion, which was moderated by Harvard English Professor Ju Yon Kim, by outlining the rise of yellowface and Asian caricature in ballet starting in the 1950’s.

“It doesn’t mean they’re not sort of beautiful in their own way, but the mannerisms, the accentuation of the race, really make this problematic in terms of the impact on actual Asian Americans,” Chan said.

New York City Ballet soloist Georgina Pazcoguin, a Filipina American dancer and the first Asian American to be promoted to an upper tier in her company, said she became acutely aware of her “otherness” as soon as she joined the company at the age of 17.

“In a lot of the critiques, they made it very much about my body, but just specifically comments about my makeup — ‘can you make your makeup look less Oriental?’” she said.

When Pazcoguin was cast in the Chinese Dance — a number in the renown ballet production "The Nutcracker" that includes geisha wigs, chopstick-like fan movements, and finger-pointing gestures — she said she felt conflicted.

“I immediately felt that something was wrong. But I couldn’t voice at the age of 20, I couldn’t say no, I’m not going to do this part because it doesn’t represent Asian culture,” she said.

Once she was promoted to soloist, however, Pazcoguin said she finally felt empowered to speak out.

“I feel like I have the power to approach Jon Stafford — the current artistic director of New York City Ballet — to say, ‘Hey, can we open up a discussion about this because this is how it’s impacting me, and I’m sure I’m not the only one experiencing this,’” she said.

Both Chan and Pazcoguin said they do not want to replace the work of Balanchine, the founder of the New York City Ballet and its first artistic director. Instead, they said they want to implement simple changes that do away with the appropriation of Asian culture in dance.

“If we want people of color to come into our spaces and feel welcome, yet we still present this outdated, Eurocentric portrayal of their culture, those two things are not congruent,” Chan said. “So we’ve really got to ask ourselves, what are we saving in the name of tradition?”

The majority of Asian ballet dancers either train in Asia before joining an American ballet company or are biracial — like Chan and Pazcoguin — and could therefore “pass” for white, according to Chan, which signaled to him that American dance institutions do not sufficiently invest in Asian Americans.

Chan also cited the model minority myth — the idea of Asian Americans keeping their heads down and working hard — as a reason why more Asian American dancers have not spoken up about racism in the industry. By speaking up, he said some Asian American dancers may feel “shame or guilt.”

“There’s a lot of darker people of color that aren’t even in these companies, so at least we’re in this space and getting a paycheck,” Chan said. “There’s also been less of a push for advocacy for Asian Americans to essentially rock the boat because we have had some degree of acceptance, and the little scrap we’ve been thrown — maybe that’s enough for now.”

Every major American ballet company has signed the project’s pledge, which reads, “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.”

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