Phil Chan and his partner, Georgina Pazcoguin, a soloist for New York City Ballet—and the only ballerina of Asian descent to receive a promotion in the company’s history, are on a mission to stop ballet’s use of yellowface.
These stereotypes include shuffling steps, yellow face-paint with made-up slanted eyes, and mannerisms that make Mickey Rooney’s racist turn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s look tame by comparison. Traditionally, these featured dances were used to reference characters from other countries, but because they were invented by people with zero cultural fluency, the results were unintentionally racist.
Chan’s approach to discussing race eschews blunt confrontation. Recognizing that the conversation is triggering for everyone involved, he begins by acknowledging the situation, then moves onto discussing its unintended, cringe-inducing effects. Following up with questions about the actual intent, he helps create choreographic solutions that fit the context of a ballet with specific details that make sense to a modern audience. Sometimes that requires updating a ballet’s plot. For instance, instead of a pirate spectacle filled with Arabic stereotypes and ‘happy slaves’, Chan has reimagined Le Corsaire as a beauty pageant at Atlantic City. In Chan’s words, “We have a responsibility as American artists to reinvent the old way of doing things.” This is particularly true if ballet is to remain relevant to younger audiences who have zero tolerance for racism.