Musings on International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day. While ballet has very much developed into an art form in which the dancers are predominantly women, there is still a big gender disparity in terms of those in the decision-making positions, such as artistic directors of ballet companies as well as choreographers.

A prominent female figure in the ballet world today is English National Ballet Director and Principal Dancer Tamara Rojo. She is a heroine in my eyes, my role model of a perfect ballerina embodying superb strengthen and grace, and above all, a strong woman with just the perfect balance between chutzpah and femininity.
Tamara Rojo

In an interview with Dance Tab last year, she said that “the way that art, that everything, is seen in life, has different angles depending on the people that do it. And that in dance, very often, choreography is created by men, so it has that perspective. And it would be good if we could have it more often created by women.”

To that end, she has commissioned a new triple bill, “She Said,” featuring new works by world-class female choreographers: Aszure Barton, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Yabin Wang, which will be staged next month by English National Ballet. It will be a truly exciting event.

Despite their small number, women are starting to make inroads into the top echelon of world-class ballet companies around the world.

For just over 10 years, Karen Kain has been the Artistic Director of The National Ballet of Canada and taken the company to a new level of international recognition.

Madeleine Onne, former Artistic Director of the Royal Swedish Ballet, has been the Artistic Director of the Hong Kong Ballet for over six years now. While I wouldn’t consider HKB “world-class” (yet), the fact that she is a female—and foreign—director of this artistic institution should be recognized, considering the challenges she faces in this conservative society.

Aurélie DupontAurélie Dupont, the darling of the Paris Opera Ballet, who spent her entire 32-year career there and retired last May, will take over the helm of the world’s oldest ballet company after Benjamin Millepied’s one-year tenure.

Julie Kent as Juliet

Julie Kent, one of the most celebrated American ballerinas of her generation, and who retired from the stage last summer after a 29-year career at American Ballet Theatre, has just been appointed the Washington Ballet’s new artistic director.

Both women had previously expressed their strong wishes to live a more carefree life and spend more time with their children and families. However, they changed their minds. I am sure that they have received tremendous support from the men in their lives and the communities around them. Just as successful men often have supportive women behind them, women—especially those who have children—could use a ton of support if they want to fulfill their highest dreams and potentials.

These new appointments are truly good news that we should celebrate. I hope we’ll hear more of such appointments and, with much anticipation, I hope the leadership by experienced female dancers like these will change the ballet world in a way that will truly reflect the balance of genders and different perspectives.

The Ugly Side of Hong Kong Ballet that No One Wants to Talk about Publicly

It’s been a long time since I wrote my last post. I was planning to do another review on Hong Kong Ballet’s other performances, after having been motivated by the high quality of the last performance, Pinocchio. But alas! A series of events have let me down, so much so that I have now put a sanction on the company’s shows “until further notice.”

“Why so drastic?” you may ask. Well, first of all, I have made an agreement with the marketing manager of the company to give me a complimentary ticket for each of their shows so that I can write reviews without having to dip into my shallow pockets. So for their Young Choreographer’s Showcase, I requested a ticket. No reply. I followed up. No reply. I started to feel that they didn’t really care about reviews by this blogger, who happens to have quite a following among balletomanes, and in particular, ballet students and dancers in Hong Kong and even Taiwan.

But I stopped fussing about my own feeling of being offended when I got to know what the company had done later on, just prior to their Romeo and Juliet show. One day, I was alerted of the fact that the company’s newest soloists, hired with expensive sums of money from Italy and Cuba, Vittorio Galloro and Arianne Lafita Gonzalvez, had left Hong Kong after their short stint with the company. There was a great deal of disappointment that fueled their decision to leave. Despite the warm welcome by the Hong Kong public, these two accomplished artists found themselves in a strange situation in which they were not appreciated for the talents and rank that they deserved. Apparently, they were left on the sideline to idle through the rest of the season, getting corps roles at best. I couldn’t help but scratch my head: What kind of treatment is this? This beautiful dancer couple was smart enough to pull the plug as quickly as they landed, while the iron is hot—they still have an enthusiastic following in Europe and beyond.

What puzzled them is also what has infuriated many of the Hong Kong Ballet dancers who have left the company en masse during the reign of Artistic Director Madeleine Onne. I have heard, first hand, from dancers who have left the company, that the artistic director has a terrible taste in the choice of what goes into the repertoire, boring capable dancers who could have benefited from more challenging roles and more interesting ballets. Many of them felt that their talents were wasted. In addition, resources—which include the taxpayers’ money—are constantly being wasted as stand-by dancers and extras are hired to do nothing.

The main problem with the company is how it is being managed. While most other major ballet companies in the world are run mainly by their artistic directors, decision-making at Hong Kong Ballet goes to the board of governors, which consists mainly of people who have nothing to do with art—the majority are socialites that grace the glossy pages of Hong Kong Tatler. Worse still, as in the case of the Dreams of the Red Chamber incident a few years ago, political concerns had led to self-censorship in artistic expression, causing a scandal that the board tried to cover up.

And the latest marketing efforts to sell The Nutcracker tickets? Read this headline: “China Everbright Ltd. Proudly Presents: The Nutcracker.” It makes me puke to hear the association between the ballet company and the scandal-stricken trading company (formerly run by the brother of the corrupt Chinese Community Party provincial chief Bo Xilai). Also, using “hooks” like complimentary champagne and Repetto discounts just seem like a cheap marketing trick to me.

I have stayed away from grinding the axe so far but I can’t keep quiet anymore. In Chinese society one often thinks about how to “save face” for oneself and others, especially if the latter are considered hot shots. But I have absolutely no personal interest in this company—not the least those complimentary tickets. In fact, I wouldn’t miss anything if I don’t go and watch their shows or do reviews. Honestly, I am fed up with this homegrown ballet company, whose quality and management keep on going downhill. Too bad for Hong Kong, but what do you expect from a place where real art is not appreciated by the majority of the citizens?

Feel free to share your comments. We do have freedom of expression here.

Dance Magazine Award 2013 Goes to Tan Yuan Yuan

Tan Yuan Yuan Dance Magazine Cover

Congratulations to Tan Yuan Yuan, my favorite Chinese ballerina, for being awarded the prestigious Dance Magazine Award this year. She received the prize in New York on December 10, 2013. While visiting New York last fall, I met a guy called Michael Tong through the tenant of my mom. He is currently in the auction business and came to my mom’s place to look at my late father’s artwork, among other things. Turns out that he was actually an organizer of ballet tours for many years in the past. He was the one who brought San Francisco Ballet to China in 2009. He told me he knows Tan Yuan Yuan very well, having gone to the same school with Tan in Shanghai but in a different era. He also recounted all the hurdles and red tape he had to go through in bringing U.S. ballet companies to perform in China.

First, he had to persuade the U.S. ballet companies (including SF Ballet and Tulsa Ballet) to take the “A cast” to China in addition to the B and the C casts. At first they were not convinced, but there was a lot of diplomatic work to do in order to prove that Beijing had the best facilities and an adequate audience who appreciate ballet. Having finally secured the casts, then there was the business side to manage. Each cultural exchange cost millions of U.S. dollars to put together—paying for airline tickets, hotels, venue and promotion, etc. He told me he had to get a lot of corporate sponsors so that the dancers could be paid properly, with a daily stipend and good hotel accommodation. In the end, he said, those companies expect nothing short of a return favor of sponsorship somewhere “down the line.” This is what is meant by guanxi in China. He seems to be politically well-connected, being able to invite all the important political leaders to attend the performances.

Still, it was not easy to sell tickets. While the shows with principal dancers like Tan were able to sell most of the tickets, shows with the B and C casts were able to fill only about 60% of the seats. In the end, for all the effort, his company earned “only about US$200,000” for each tour. Nonetheless, it was a satisfying experience for him. And after a successful visit by the San Francisco Ballet in Beijing, the U.S. Ambassador invited him and the ballet company members to a dinner at his own residence.