Setting the Barre

One of the world’s most renowned ballet dancers and unofficial prima ballerina assoluta of America’s oldest professional ballet company celebrates over a quarter-century of being “en pointe.”

Yuan Yuan Tan may now be acclaimed worldwide for her perfect displays of complicated combinations, but when it came to becoming a ballet dancer, it was a stroke of luck that led to her career. While her mother, who once dreamed of being a ballerina, supported Tan’s dancing, her father disagreed, knowing careers in the field were often short-lived. “My father felt it would be better to become a lawyer, or an engineer like him. He thought, you can dance for fun, but not for a career.”

At the age of 10, Tan auditioned for the Shanghai Dance School, successfully competing against thousands to win a place at the academy, but her parents could not come to a consensus on whether she should enroll. With time ticking down to decide, they tossed a coin—and her mother won.

Today Tan—or YY, as her colleagues call her—is known as one of the premier ballerinas in the world, a history-making principal dancer at the storied institution of San Francisco Ballet (SFB), who will celebrate her 25th anniversary this season. Technically, she has been with the company for 27 years—her anniversary celebration, originally slated for April 2020, was rescheduled due to the pandemic. She is looking forward to finally celebrating this major achievement with her family and friends in February 2022, with an intimate dinner held at the Palace Hotel preceded by a matinee performance that will see Tan dancing in SFB Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s Caprice, a role that was created for her. With this milestone, Tan has held the position of a principal dancer longer than any other dancer in SFB’s history.

After graduating from Shanghai Dance School, Tan entered several ballet competitions and applied for scholarships, winning a spot at the John Cranko Schule in Stuttgart, Germany to train over three years. Her first major accolade was a gold medal in the junior division at the International Ballet Competition in Paris in 1992, a performance for which legendary ballerina Galina Ulanova awarded her a perfect score. Rather serendipitously, Tan’s first taste of ballet had been a television broadcast of Swan Lake starring Ulanova. Swan Lake later became Tan’s first major role at SFB: she landed the coveted role of Odette/Odile in the 1998 season. She also received the Nijinsky Award in Japan the following year, the first time it had ever been awarded to a female dancer.

After witnessing her talent at a competition, Tomasson wrote Tan a letter, inviting her to perform as a guest artist at SFB’s Opening Night Gala in 1995. On the heels of finishing her first year at John Cranko Schule, Tan thought it was a one-off performance, intending to return to Stuttgart to complete her studies and then rise through the ranks beginning in the corps de ballet—but Tomasson had other plans. “After the gala, he said, ‘I think you fit into the company very well,’” Tan recalls. She didn’t speak English at the time, so Tomasson’s request was translated for her. He offered Tan a position with the company to start as a soloist, which would make her the youngest soloist at the company—as well as the first Asian soloist. She leaped at the opportunity.

Aside from adapting to the city—arriving at just 18 years old, with one suitcase—she was also faced with the difficult task of adapting her classical training in the Vaganova method to the very different style of American ballet. One of Tan’s most inspiring stories early on at SFB is her last-minute casting in Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto, which was performing the very next day. “Somebody got injured, and I had to learn [the ballet] overnight. It was mission impossible!” she laughs. In addition to the completely unfamiliar style of movement, the music was difficult to count in Chinese. “But I made it happen and I did the performances. I believe in opportunity … and I was ready for the challenge. I think I gained Helgi’s trust, then he just gave me more and more opportunities to develop my artistry and let me grow.” Tan has since originated principal roles in Tomasson’s 7 for Eight, Chi-Lin, The Fifth Season, and Silver Ladders, as well as roles in works by notable choreographers such as Yuri Possokhov, Christopher Wheeldon, and Stanton Welch.

Tan was promoted to principal the following year, an appointment that made her the youngest principal dancer in the history of SFB, as well as the first Chinese dancer to achieve the ranking—a position she has held ever since. Twenty-seven years is an incredibly long career in ballet, a field that demands much from the body, and a tenure almost unheard of. It can be attributed to her unwavering love of the art form and steadfast commitment to perfecting the steps, turns, lifts, and leaps that have made her such a tour de force onstage.

“I never lost love for this art form, even though there’s a lot of difficulties and uncertainties,” says Tan. She has battled several injuries, including a severe hip injury for which doctors recommended surgery, but Tan declined due to the low success rate of making a full recovery, as it would potentially curtail her dancing career. As most ballet dancers do, she shapes her lifestyle around her career, attributing her health to proper nutrition, physical therapy, and a strong mindset that allows her to push through the many challenges of a ballet career, especially one as lengthy as hers. She is a perfectionist who also recognizes that it’s important to know when to rest. “Sometimes you do have to listen to your body, to adjust your behavior, because we always want to do more and more.”

The pandemic was an especially difficult time for all dancers, as it was difficult to stay in shape when it was uncertain when they could perform again. “I already had a long journey … and I’m still going strong, but when the pandemic hit, I was a little bit concerned. I was thinking, ‘What is next?’” She credits strength of mind, maintaining an optimistic attitude, and her support network for getting her through the last 21 months. “I kept telling myself [not to] worry too much, because there’s always a way when you have faith. The mind has a big impact in the whole universe. So, I believed that I [should] just keep going, make sure that I have positive energy, and talk to my parents and my good friends to get through these difficult times.” Thirty-four years after that fated flip of the coin, Tan’s parents now reside with her in San Francisco.

Tan returned to perform with SFB in her homeland for the first time in 2015, performing in Tomasson’s full-length production of Giselle in Beijing. Her performances in Othello, The Little Mermaid, and as the Snow Queen in Tomasson’s The Nutcracker were also recorded and released on DVD, immortalizing Tan’s artistry and providing inspiration to young ballerinas everywhere—not unlike the way Ulanova once inspired Tan onscreen. As the first Chinese-born dancer to maintain a principal position in one of the top American ballet companies, she is only partway through establishing a legacy that will live on long after she retires from dancing (though she says she will continue to stick with the art form through choreography, production, and perhaps teaching). She has made an indelible mark on the ballet world with an ethereal grace and stage presence that has held the rapt attention of audiences internationally.

One of the reasons she is such a singular talent is her ability to unite the East and the West in her practice. Her Chinese side brings a certain sentimentality that comes through in the way she expresses herself through dance, an immaculate attention to detail that uses every movement to tell a story. Each step, each gesture is laden with emotion, an added layer of complexity to the already exacting technique of the Western art form. But Tan also excels here, resolute in her ability to tackle choreographic challenges beyond simply nailing a step. In the past, Tomasson never shied away from complicated movements, knowing full well her incredible capabilities. “I always think you can always make things better. Not just look better, but also meaningful for yourself—to press more deeper in the story or in the step,” she says.

When it comes to praise, many touch on Tan’s innate ability to meticulously transform into a great variety of demanding roles onstage, from the innocent white swan to the beguiling black swan, star-crossed lover Juliet to the heartsick little mermaid. However, she also finds inspiration in dancing neoclassical pieces or contemporary works that don’t necessarily have a storyline: “You can make [your own] story.”

And make her own story she has. She has been called “Audrey Hepburn en pointe” by Joyce Maynard, immortalized by Mattel as a “Barbie role model,” and even had April 9, 2018, recognized as “Yuan Yuan Tan Day” by former San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee. However, more than simple star power shines through Tan’s modest, yet confident, demeanor. There’s a foundation of incredible work ethic and a respect for ballet that have allowed her to not only master the movement, but also interpret its nuances through the scope of her own experiences, further elevating and expanding the art form—something that can rarely be said for a discipline as rigid and precise as ballet. Tan brings a true love of ballet, exceptional talent and dedication, and infinite wisdom to each of the roles she embodies—and in this way, her impact transcends far beyond the stage.

Photos by Vincent Gotti
Photographer Assistant: Brian Hoyt
Executive Producer: Teresa Rodriguez
Hair & Makeup: Nellie Muganda
Wardrobe provided by Louis Vuitton, Cruise 2022
Collection and Louis Vuitton Volt Fine Jewelry
On location at Le Petit Trianon, San Francisco