Phil Chan is fighting racism in America, one ballet company at a time.
The co-founder of the advocacy group Final Bow for Yellowface fought one of his bigger battles in Salt Lake City, helping Ballet West navigate reviving a 1925 ballet that included movements, steps and makeup that were undeniably racist by 21st century standards.
The rather sticky process surrounding the Utah revival of George Balanchine’s “Le Chant du Rossignol” is detailed in Chan’s book “Final Bow For Yellowface: Dancing between Intention and Impact.”
It was the first time Chan was so directly involved as a consultant — and it put him in the middle, between dance historians who wanted to change nothing and Utah Asian American activists who were offended by feet shuffling, head bobbing and more.
“It showed me that there’s room for this conversation. There’s a need for it, and our community is not well prepared to have it,” said Chan, who was invited into the process by Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute. “It’s a much larger conversation than many realize. And there is an interest in doing better and in understanding.”
“Yellowface is the portrayal of East Asians in entertainment from a dominant Western perspective rather than authentic depictions of East Asian cultures and people. Yellowface relies on stereotypes or caricatures of East Asians, and is usually performed by white actors. Like black actors appearing in blackface, Asian performers have also historically appeared in yellowface.”
— Final Bow for Yellowface (yellowface.org)
Ballet companies across the country have been confronted about the racist Chinese portions of “The Nutcracker,” and many have adapted those segments. (In his book, Chan gives Ballet West and Sklute credit for being on the cutting edge of that in 2013.)
But the issue goes much further than that, including everything from the portrayal of Asians in “Madame Butterfly” to the portrayal of Indians in “La Bayadere,” which includes the “uncomfortable dynamic of watching happy slave girls being bought and sold and raped.”
“We preach out of one side of our mouth — yes, diversity, equity, inclusion. But on the other side, we continue to present what Europeans thought Indian people looked like 150 years ago without any questions asked,” Chan said.
The Pennsylvania Ballet recently called on Chan to help adapt its March performance of “La Bayadere” — a ballet that Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet performed with several of its dancers in blackface just five months ago.
In the book, the former dancer writes that he was surprised to get a call several years from then-New York City Ballet artistic director Peter Martins to talk about changes to “The Nutcracker.”
And he never expected that would lead to starting Final Bow for Yellowface (yellowface.org) with his friend Georgina Pazcoguin, a soloist with NYCB; that they’d convince dozens of prominent ballet companies to sign their no-more-yellowface pledge; that they’d consult not just on ballets but on operas, musical theater and more.
And Chan didn’t anticipate he’d end up devoting so much of his time to the effort.
"It was just realizing that we’re in the right place at the right time with the right dynamic to push this forward,” he said. “And, to keep the art form alive, this is probably the best thing we could do for classical ballet.”
The Yellowface Pledge
“I love ballet as an art form, and acknowledge that to achieve diversity among our artists, audiences, donors, students, volunteers, and staff requires inclusion. I am committed to eliminating outdated and offensive stereotypes of Asians (Yellowface) on our stages.”
— Final Bow for Yellowface (yellowface.org)
He’s not out to censor ballet; he wants to help it survive and thrive. He’s told the George Balanchine Trust, which licenses Balanchine’s work: “Yes, I have a pitchfork in my hand. But I’m not coming to burn down the castle. I’m here to help you build a better castle.”
‘Coming from a place of love’
Reading his “Final Bow for Yellowface” e-book is a lot like talking to Chan. It’s conversational and bright, and offers advice and solutions without judgment. (There are plans to publish it in paperback in the coming months.)
He writes that no one should expect him and Pazcoguin to be the “Political Correctness Police” and “ride up on our dragons and smoke out yellowface.”
“Our approach to advocacy is not adversarial,” Chan said. “We weren’t coming to these ballet companies and saying, ‘Hey, you guys are all racist.’ My approach has been inclusive advocacy. We’re insiders and we’re coming from a place of love because it is in our best interest for ballet to succeed and to continue.”
His skills were clearly on display back in August 2019, when Sklute called on him to help Ballet West adapt “Le Chant.” Dance historian and choreographer Millicent Hodson, who teamed with Kenneth Archer to research and re-create Balanchine’s work, turned a deaf ear to any suggestion that the racist elements should be changed when she initially met with members of Utah’s Asian American community.
Chan didn’t criticize her. He stated his views calmly. And he continued to have conversations with Hodson after that public meeting.
“You have to give people the benefit of the doubt. And it doesn’t mean that they’re bad people,” he said. “It just means that my ideas have to be stronger and they need to be absorbed by more people in order for the conversation to move forward. Screaming and getting hysterical does me no favors.
“If I called Millicent racist right off the bat, that’s it. She wouldn’t speak to me again," he said. "And I needed to continue to talk to her, even though there were so many things that came out of her mouth that were deeply problematic.”
The book is mostly about the Asian American experience, but it can apply to any ethnic minorities and other forms of performance.
“Whether it’s black people, whether it’s Mexicans on TV, whether it’s Muslims in popular culture post-9/11, you can apply the same framework to the question — what are we putting on stage and why? And if it’s problematic, what are ways to fix it?”
Final Bow for Yellowface is “just two people with a website” — which makes what Chan and Pazcoguin have accomplished all the more remarkable. They have sponsors and they accept donations, but they’re not “aggressively fundraising” and they’re not a foundation.
‘Make it diverse, democratic and inclusive’
The “Final Bow for Yellowface” book is a look back and a look ahead. It’s a look at Chan’s life — a ballet dancer who was raised in both Hong Kong and the United States by his Chinese father and a white mother — and a look at the history of ballet itself.
Traditionally, ballet has been overwhelmingly white. White dancers. White choreographers and artistic directors. White audiences. And the offensive, ethnic stereotyping went largely unnoticed for decades.
But the number of ethnic minority dancers is increasing, and ballet companies are reaching out to diverse communities for new audiences.
“The next step is — how do we take this art form, which is elitist, aristocratic, exclusive, and make it diverse, democratic and inclusive?” he said. "You can’t have ‘Petrushka’ in blackface when you have black people in the room.”
When companies try to appeal to ticket buyers by performing tried-and-true ballets, they’re more likely to revive older works created when racism was so casual it wasn’t even recognized, rather than commission new works by 21st century choreographers.
But Chan rejects arguments that choreography is somehow sacrosanct in ballet.
“We pretend that it’s for the sake of tradition,” Chan said, “because our art form is so ephemeral that we need to hold on to as much of it as we can and we are so resistant to any sort of major change — disregarding that every show is different and change is happening all the time.”
“It’s weird how we’re willing to change some things, but not how we deal with race,” Chan continued. “You’re willing to cut the tutu. You’re willing to let women come on stage. You’re willing to show ankles. You’re willing to let legs go above your head. Yet you still want to do it the ‘chinky’ way from the 1830s. Why?
“When you invite people like me into ballet, you’re going to have to start answering those questions.”