A Pirouette Through China’s Capital With Tan Yuan Yuan
When she was only 11, the fate of Tan Yuan Yuan, China’s most famous ballerina, was sealed by the flip of a coin. Her mother wished her to be a dancer, her father a doctor or engineer. The dance world will be forever grateful that the coin toss was in Mrs. Tan’s favor.
Hailed as one of the most outstanding ballerinas of our time, and certainly the most famous from mainland China, Yuan Yuan has now been with the San Francisco Ballet for 20 years. She studied in Shanghai and Stuttgart before landing in San Francisco at the tender age of 18. Though speaking no English, she was immediately snatched up as a soloist with San Francisco Ballet and by the age of 20, she was promoted to principal dancer, a position she has held ever since.Named one of “Asia’s Heroes” by Time magazine in 2004, she also received the Excellence Award from The Committee of 100, an elite organization of distinguished Chinese Americans in 2010. In addition to multiple accolades in dance, she was featured in an international GAP ad campaign in 2012 and photographed for both Vogue and W magazines.Of her 130 performances per year, from classical ballet to modern dance, perhaps her most sentimental take place in Beijing, where Yuan Yuan often performs at the Grand Theatre. There is no other theatre like it, according to her, where such an ultra-modern venue shares street space with the classic outlines of Tiananmen Square. But that is typical Beijing says Yuan Yuan, “where anything is possible.” Much like the career of a young dancer from China, who has kept one foot in the worlds of East and West, celebrating the best of both.
The first time I saw Beijing I was four years old. I still remember when I heard the “tune” of Mandarin spoken here – the dialect has very specific and beautiful tones. Whenever I come back to Beijing, the first thing I notice is the driver’s Beijing accent, the sound of the Beijing language. It feels good, I feel like I’m home.
Beijing is the scene of some very important moments in my life. The second time I came I was 14 and I was in a contest to select the country’s top young dancers for an international competition. My parents came with me and they went to Great Wall to pray for me. I ended up being chosen and travelling internationally for the first time, winning medals in Helsinki and Paris and another in Japan. So, Beijing was the start of everything in a way.
I have performed more often at the Grand Theatre in Beijing than in my hometown of Shanghai. I absolutely love the theatre; it’s unique. You have the 5,000-year-old history of the capital and in the same place a very modern venue. There is a past and a present happening in the Theatre as well as a future. That is unique and very “Beijing.”
The changes in Beijing have been dramatic. Compared to when I first saw the city, it is a completely different world now. But something remains – the roots, the culture we have had for centuries, the ancient buildings. But to be in modern Beijing is fascinating too. Because anything you can imagine, anything you can think of, is here. It feels like two different worlds in the same place.
When I come back to Beijing I love to visit familiar things like the Grand Theatre, the Summer Palace…and in 2009 I went to Great Wall for first time – can you imagine? But I will definitely go again.
I never eat Western food when I’m in Beijing! I always eat authentic local food and I just found a great place for it at Rosewood Beijing’s Country Kitchen. The Peking Duck is great, they have very good ma po doufu – tofu — and the noodles are to die for.
Dance fans should visit the Beijing Dance Academy – it’s huge and has every type of dance you can think of. For dance performances, check out the Grand Theatre, Poly Theatre or Tianqiao Theatre.
In Beijing there are so many art galleries, art museums and private collections; I particularly like the National Gallery. For fun I walk around the 798 art district a lot. You can see everything from commercial art to very avant garde pieces.
I also like to walk around the antique market, Panjiayuan. You can find real things, fake things, curious little things to collect – silver and turquoise, from hairclips to statues – of course they’ll say “it’s from the Qing dynasty” and I’ll just laugh and say “yeah, right!”
There are a lot of interesting Chinese designers—Alexander Wang and Phillip Lim — who have made a name internationally. I like Shiatzy Chen and a brand called Blanc de Chine. Also, I prefer a contemporary Chinese qi pao to a classical one. But I’m a ballerina; I can’t wear anything too fashion forward – the old time ballerinas were very proper, like Margot Fonteyn who always wore a skirt and hat and gloves. But now I just choose to be stylish and comfortable yet with a little Chinese flair!
Basically, because I’m an artist myself, why I like Beijing so much is that the people are very creative and open to anything. Creativity draws my attention and inspires me. And the people here have the northern Chinese personality which is very open, direct and straightforward. But otherwise – really everything about Beijing I like!