In June, after more than ten years in the corps de ballet, Chinese ballet dancer Zhong-Jing Fang was promoted to the rank of soloist at American Ballet Theatre (ABT). Fang, who grew up in Shanghai and trained at the Shanghai Ballet School, has previously won the prestigious Prix de Lausanne and the Helsinki International Ballet Competition. As one of several prominent Asian dancers in the United States, her success points to the importance of ballet as a medium of cultural exchange.
Asian dancers, such as San Francisco Ballet’s Yuan Yuan Tan, American Ballet Theatre’s Hee Seo, and the Houston Ballet’s Yuriko Kajiya, have become audience favorites all over the United States. However, in the ballet world, institutional barriers such as accessibility and and deeply-ingrained racial bias still pose challenges for many people of color; these difficulties are especially pronounced for African American dancers. Misa Kuranaga, the first Asian woman to be named Principal Dancer at Boston Ballet, wrote that she faced obstacles both because of her petite stature, which was not a weakness in Japan, and because, as she put it, “the biggest stereotype for Asians in the dance world is that we are poor actors because of the shape of our face and our reserved temperament.” As such, when Asian and Asian American dancers succeed in the United States, they break barriers and show young Asian American dancers that they, too, can succeed.
Ballet is not only a medium of exchange at the professional level; it has also become a source of student exchange between the United States and Asia. Programs like Long Beach Ballet’s China Collaborative Summer Intensive bring American ballet students to China every summer. Program participants begin with three weeks in California, then travel to Guangzhou, China, where they spend two weeks studying ballet and classical Chinese dance. The program culminates in a performance featuring Long Beach Ballet intensive participants and their Chinese counterparts.
Additionally, Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP), America’s most prestigious youth ballet competition, hosts semi-finals in Japan, China, Korea, and Australia. Those who place highly in these competitions have the opportunity to compete in the Finalist round in New York City, where many earn scholarships to pursue summer or long-term ballet training in elite American conservatories. In 2018, 18 dancers from Asia earned top awards in individual categories, and several Asian schools placed in group and partner categories. Competitions like YAGP are among the primary avenues through which Asian dancers find training opportunities in America; as a result, Asian dance students are typically well-represented at summer programs throughout the country.
Ballet’s worldwide popularity has made it an ideal medium of cultural exchange. Not only has it brought a number of talented Asian artists to the United States, but it has also provided opportunities for American students to work closely with like-minded counterparts from Asia. Some, like Fang, will go on to achieve their dreams of dancing in prestigious companies, and inspire generations to come. Many others, however, will never dance professionally. Instead, they will carry with them the memories of the people-to-people connections they built during their training.
Elizabeth Smith is a Research Intern at the East-West Center. She has recently finished her coursework at the University of Chicago, and will be studying at the Inter-University Center in Yokohama next year as a Boren Scholar. She has studied classical ballet in Paris and Kyoto.