By Juan Michael Porter II
28 May 2021
Last year, Phil Chan and Georgina Pazcoguin—the founders of Final Bow For Yellowface, an initiative created to eliminate offensive stereotypes of Asians on the stage—marked Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month by interviewing a different ballet dancer of Asian descent during each day of May. The video series was entitled, “What’s The Tea?”
For 2021, the duo has leveled up: This month, they are presenting work created by choreographers of Asian descent. Only this time, instead of focusing solely on ballet dancers, Chan and Pazcoguin decided to show audiences the full scope of what is possible in dance.
It’s all part of “10,000 Dreams: Virtual Choreography Festival,” a free online dance festival that the two curated with Jessica Tong, the associate artistic director of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Through the end of May, viewers can visit the site each day to see a different dance piece created by a choreographer of Asian descent. There is no cost to view the videos, though if one feels moved, they can make a donation to help support Final Bow For Yellowface’s vision.
Final Bow for Yellowface is an organization that Chan and Pazcoguin created in 2017 to encourage ballet companies around the world to divest their productions of racist caricatures while promoting diversity throughout the art form. To date, almost every major ballet company in the United States has taken Final Bow’s pledge to reject orientalism and racism in their work.
But the mission does not stop there: According to Pazcoguin, it’s not enough to simply reject these tropes—they need to be replaced with something that is culturally meaningful and engaging to audiences.
That’s where “10,000 Dreams” comes in. “If an artistic director complains that they don’t know where to find an Asian choreographer or creative to work with,” Pazcoguin said, “well, we’ve found at least 31 for you. So no more excuses.”
Fighting for Representation
Pazcoguin is used to hearing excuses like this. She is the first and only ballerina of Asian descent to ever be promoted to the rank of a soloist at the New York City Ballet, one of the world’s leading dance companies. Sadly, she is also the only woman of color to dance in the upper ranks of the company in over 20 years.
Though speaking out about matters of racial equity could torpedo her career—particularly in a world where the mantra “dancers should be seen, not heard” is the rule of thumb—Pazcoguin said that she has “never been able to keep my head down.” Pazcoguin rejects the awful stereotype of Asian women being submissive—and anyone who has ever seen this powerfully lyrical dancer knows that there is nothing subservient about her. That is why she is known in the dance world as the “Rogue Ballerina.”
But her outspokenness has had its costs. As Chan points out, Pazcoguin is the only ballerina in the upper ranks at City Ballet who has never been given the opportunity to perform the iconic role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, which is one of the most popular ballet productions in the world. Nonetheless, “Georgina is an amazing ballerina—and I’m not saying that because she’s my friend,” Chan said. “That’s why she’s consistently handpicked by guest choreographers when they work with the company.”
Chan knows what he is talking about. In addition to being a former dancer himself, he is also a 2020 New York Public Library Dance Research Fellow and author of the acclaimed book, Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing Between Intention and Impact, which serves as a resource guide that demystifies ballet’s stereotypes through a historical lens and helps readers with updating their classical pieces, so they remain relevant to today’s audiences.
“I don’t want people to think that they have to cancel ballet,” Chan said. “It’s possible to change a few things that are offensive to create something that speaks to the world today.” Though some purists may balk at this idea, Chan pointed out that choreographers and directors have been updating ballets for centuries. He said an obvious indication of this is that ballerinas did not lift their legs up to their ears 200 years ago, though this is quite common today.
Beyond aesthetic choices, Chan cautioned that “if artistic directors want millennials and Gen Z to come to the ballet, they’re going to have to stop offending everybody. It’s not enough to say, ‘But this is the way we used to do it back in the day.’ Especially when we see updated versions of Shakespeare and operas all the time.”
Pazcoguin agreed. “Why should anyone pay $200 to sit through horrible stereotypes?” she asserted. “Can you imagine what that does to a young Asian or Black girl? When they’re told that they can never be the queen or princess—that they have to play a slave or a maid?” Pazcoguin added that “no one goes to the ballet to feel like they don’t count or that if they want to join in, they have to stand in the back.”
The message that Asian people don’t count has been percolating in this country for decades. We see it today even in language from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which trumpets that “Asians” have the lowest recorded HIV seroconversion rates among all groups in the U.S. without addressing the glaring problem that Asian Americans also have the lowest rates for HIV testing.
The issue is brushed under the table in part because of the model minority myth, which claims that Asian people are all magically perfect, don’t experience challenges, and therefore require zero resources or investment into their communities.
Much like the practice of redlining, which primarily afflicts Black communities, the model minority myth has translated into decades of AAPI divestment and erasure—even in progressive metropolises like New York City. According to Coalition for Asian American Children and Families’ analysis of the city’s budget for 2020, organizations serving Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) or led by AAPI were only allocated 4.4% of the City Council’s discretionary dollars and less than 1.5% of social service contract dollars. This even as people of Asian descent account for 15% of the city’s overall population.
But the practice of ignoring problems that affect AAPI communities does not stop there; it extends into crime reporting as well. For instance, the New York Police Department (NYPD) crime statistics from Jan. 1 through Nov. 1, 2020 recorded only three hate crimes against Asian people, despite reporting that suggested the actual number was far higher. Meanwhile, in a category that was only created last year, the department also listed 24 “Other Corona” based hate crimes without referencing race. By the end of 2020, there were 25 recorded “Other Corona” based hate crimes, and 24 of them occurred against people of Asian descent. By erasing racial representation in this manner, the NYPD was able to neglect a community that was in dire need of assistance during a pandemic that awakened horrific levels of racist violence.
A similar act of injustice was only recently corrected in Atlanta, Georgia, when the district attorney of Fulton County finally announced on May 11 that she would seek hate crime charges in her county for the massage parlor shootings in March that ultimately left six Korean American women and two bystanders dead. Prior to the announcement, some political figures had dismissed the targeted murders as being motivated by sex rather than race. This denial went as far as 63 Republican members of Congress voting against an anti-Asian hate crimes bill that was signed into law on May 20, with some members denouncing it as an infringement upon free speech or proof that police powers needed to be expanded.
This attempt to ignore issues that affect Asian people exists in the entertainment industry as well. According to UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report for 2020, only 6.5% of all top film roles (and 5.4% of all leading roles) went to Asian people. Meanwhile, an Asian American Performers Action Coalition study of New York City’s theatrical 2017-2018 season found that Asian American actors accounted for only 6.9% of all actors cast—and that they were the group least likely to be cast when a role had no designated race.
The consequences of this Asian erasure were made clear earlier this month in a survey commissioned by the nonprofit organization Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change. The survey, which included 2,766 adults from across the U.S., found that 42% of respondents who were asked to name a famous Asian American answered “don’t know.” Eleven percent of respondents listed Jackie Chan, while 9% listed Bruce Lee.
Transforming the Face of Dance
Chan and Pazcoguin look at figures like these and know that the outlook isn’t much better in the dance community. While ballet companies often hire dancers of Asian descent, most of those dancers have been poached from national schools in other countries where their talent was nurtured. But when it comes to cultivating the talent of Asian dancers born in this country, one sees the same appalling treatment that Black women receive in ballet—apathy and exclusion.
It is even worse when it comes to hiring Asian choreographers to create new work; overwhelmingly, those commissions go to white men. A review of Dance Data Project’s survey of works that were scheduled for the 2019-2020 season reveals that among the top 50 dance companies in the U.S., only five had hired a choreographer of Asian descent to work with them for the season. Edwaard Liang accounted for four of those commissions; Cali Quan of BalletX was the fifth.
By producing “10,000 Dreams,” Chan and Pazcoguin hope to change this reality. They have already made progress: Recently, they announced that six major ballet companies have agreed to commission new ballets from all-Asian creative-led teams by 2025, including the choreographer, composer, costume designer, and set designer.
Those companies—Ballet Met, Boston Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Houston Ballet, Oakland Ballet, and Washington Ballet—are going beyond the virtue signaling that many organizations flashed after the hate crime attacks in Atlanta. Those attacks are what motivated Chan and Pazcoguin to jump into high gear with their efforts to make the dance world confront its complicity in the erasure and silencing of AAPI voices.
Honoring a Legacy
Chan says that a “patron saint” for their plan is Choo San Goh, a Singaporean-born choreographer of Chinese descent who died in 1987 from viral colitis at the age of 39, one year after he was diagnosed with AIDS.
“[Goh] would have been the next Balanchine if he hadn’t died,” Chan said—a reference to George Balanchine, who is widely considered one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century. Prior to his passing, Goh was an internationally acclaimed choreographer who created works for many of the world’s leading dance companies, including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theatre, Bat Dor Dance Company, Boston Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Houston Ballet, Joffrey Ballet Royal Swedish Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, and Washington Ballet, where he served as resident choreographer.
Chan said that the idea for “10,000 Dreams” follows a plan set out by Goh, who believed in nurturing Asian voices. Following his death, a foundation was created in his name in 1992 to support the creation of new choreography. Funding for the foundation would have come from licensing ballets that Goh created during his lifetime, but because many of those works have not been performed in years, the organization’s funding has dried up. Luckily, the mission to elevate Asian voices lives again through “10,000 Dreams.”
Chan and Pazcoguin have even contacted a number of companies that hold Goh’s ballets in their repertoires and asked that they revive them. Thus far, all six companies that have agreed to commission new Asian-creative led works, have also signed on. Chan said that the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s artistic director, Virginia Johnson, told him that “everyone should see Choo San’s ballets. They are so good.”
Hopefully, by the time 2025 rolls around, the world will see Goh’s work in tandem with many other Asian choreographers. With Chan and Pazcoguin leading the way, that dream is on its way to becoming a reality.
To read the article, originally published on The Body, click here.