The Inquisition: Tan Yuanyuan, ballet dancer
The principal dancer talks about her post-ballet ambitions and how she’s looking forward to doing normal things
Text: Edmund Lee
48 HOURS: Despite your hectic schedule you have found the time to dance with the Hong Kong Ballet about once a year since 2008. What's your impression of local audiences?
TAN YUANYUAN: Audiences here are unique. You can tell they have seen all these world-class performances — especially those at the Hong Kong Arts Festival. As their tastes are of such a high standard, you have to come up with something new to show them every year.
Can you talk about the two pas de deux that you're going to perform in Hong Kong from May 23 to 25?
The piece Finding Light was made just for me and [my dance partner] Damian Smith last year and it has only been performed in Beijing's National Grand Theatre and Sadler's Wells in London. There's another piece called Five Movements, Three Repeats by English choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.
Damian Smith had been your fellow principal dancer at the San Francisco Ballet since 2001. How's your partnership?
He's been dancing for the San Francisco Ballet for the past 19 years, and he's been my dance partner for all that time. He recently finished with the San Francisco Ballet, but not with me. We will continue working together. Actually, I have already scheduled him for more performances with me up to this December. So when the Hong Kong Ballet said, "Can we put on the ads that 'you'll see the last dance of Yuanyuan and Damian in Hong Kong'," I said, "No, never say never." He's not finished dancing; he's just finished dancing for the San Francisco Ballet.
You started training in Shanghai at the age of 11 and you became the principal dancer of the San Francisco Ballet at 20. How do you stay disciplined?
You know, as an artist you're sometimes very hard on yourself. Over the years, I've learned to push my limit — but not too far. Sometimes you have to give yourself a break, otherwise you're gonna go crazy. There's never an end. To be perfect is impossible, but to be better is possible. When I look back and see that I'm better than yesterday, then it's good enough. I'm very happy that I've found my own peaceful place.
Are there works that you really want to perform but haven't had the chance to?
Kenneth MacMillan's Manon, and the full length of John Neumeier's The Lady of the Camellias — I did a pas de deux with his company, but not a full-length production. Both are my dream roles.
Do you have a planned timeline for your dancing career?
I think I'm still dancing very strongly, and I'm happy with the way I am right now. Before, I said I would hang up my shoes but I didn't, because you can't predict what's going to happen to you. What's happening to me is amazing. Ballet has come to me and amazing companies have asked me to perform with them, like the Hamburg Ballet for John Neumeier's The Little Mermaid. I'm happy to keep dancing until my body tells me, "that is enough", or I wake up one day and think, "I've had enough".
Will you consider turning to other slightly less demanding art forms, like modern dance or physical theatre?
Ballet will still be the main thing, but I don't mind testing the waters for other options. Mikhail Baryshnikov did ballet and then tried contemporary dance and went on to become an actor. He's taking on different roles from his ballet years, but is still very active in the arts. He's a role model for me.
Besides ballet, is there anything that you would like to be really good at?
Actually, I love fashion design. Also, I wish I could play good piano, but I don't. Maybe I should keep practising [ laughs]. And if I stop dancing one day I want to go skiing, skydiving and do all the things that normal people can do, but I cannot right now because I'm still dancing.