Equipoise | Yuan Yuan Tan
Twenty-five years ago this month, Yuan Yuan Tan joined the San Francisco Ballet. Now one of the most acclaimed principal dancers of her generation, she is renowned for her unearthly grace, fluidity, and expressiveness. Underlying that ethereal presence is, of course, great endurance built on decades of discipline and rigor. Here, she shares her practices for maintaining balance, positivity, and strength while sheltering in place.
LJ: First, how you are doing at this exceptional moment?
YYT: I'm doing fine, thank you! I'm sheltering in place in San Francisco with my parents and taking care of them. My father is 80 and my mother is 72, and I feel a responsibility to make sure they’re safe during this unprecedented time. I’m grateful we're all in good health.
LJ: You are both artist and athlete - your typical daily schedule can include eight hours of dance. How are you maintaining your fitness outside of the studio right now?
YYT: Well, it’s frustrating because I can't work with my dance partner - there is no pas de deux. But discipline is part of a dancer’s life. We have a Zoom workout everyday and I just did one with a very special woman named Lisa Giannone who trains top athletes. I took her 90 minute class and it was a killer!
LJ: Tell us about your beauty regimen - we'd love to know how you stay so radiant!
YYT: Exercise is the secret. Luckily, as a dancer, I’m constantly in movement. When your blood flows and your body circulates, your skin is more vibrant. Keeping your skincare simple is also key. Starting with clean skin is the foundation for receiving any skin nourishment. Since I don’t have time to go to a salon, I give myself facials. Now that we’re all home and distanced, we’ve come to realized that we are all capable of taking care of ourselves. In relation to beauty, I also believe wholeheartedly in the maxim “you are what you eat.” In Traditional Chinese Medicine there is no real distinction between what is food and what is medicine - they are just various points along a spectrum, each with a range of influences on the body. My mother makes nourishing soups - made with love, of course! - that restore the body and soul after a rehearsal or performance. Health and beauty radiate from within.
LJ: In ballet, so much is about finding and keeping your center. How do you do that? And how do you carry that into your life off-stage?
YYT: It's not only about your core and keeping a strong physical center, it's about staying centered mentally and staying balanced. Everything is about balance, about Yin and Yang. Light needs the counterbalance of darkness, movement needs stillness - opposites enhance each other. Meditation helps find the core of these opposites. I recommend finding a place of calm, a place where you can be still, and focus on your breath. For me it's an essential part of everyday life, particularly at this moment. If something goes wrong, I focus on grounding my energy, feeling my center, which is deep within the body. The uncertainties and vicissitudes of life are always present, but being rooted helps you weather the storm.
We recently had the privilege of creating the gown Yuan Yuan Tan wore to the San Francisco Ballet’s Opening Gala celebrating her 25th year with the company. Using Chinese ink, we hand-painted a single panel of silk organza with a peony - her favorite flower - and a hummingbird flying up from one blossom to another, representing her grace in flight. We then hand-stitched the panel into a gown. Adding to the magic of its creation, we painted it under the first full moon of the decade.
LJ: You've said "The real meaning of dance is from inside out - to touch, to move the audience." In this unprecedented moment, many are taking time to look inward and consider how to move forward. How would you encourage them?
YYT: In modern society we’re programmed to always be busy and doing things, and now the entire world is being told to be still. It’s incredibly powerful and almost inconceivable. But mentally it’s a time to keep moving forward, keep moving on. It’s an incredible opportunity to take stock, to eliminate the negative in our lives and re-focus on what you really want to do.
LJ: Where are you finding inspiration during this crisis?
YYT: Music and reading, and of course the news because I really care about what's going on around us - it is so concerning and surreal. I’ve been in touch with my international friends, especially in China. I’m also honing my cooking skills! I just harvested baskets of lemons from the tree in my yard and have been doing “curbside deliveries” to friends in the city. And I'm still doing my dance projects as best I can. I check in with my dance colleagues to know they're safe. We do virtual happy hours - we raise a glass and encourage each other to look on the bright side.
Though performances are currently suspended due to COVID-19. you can provide support for the San Francisco Ballet through its Critical Relief Fund.
Our original illustration for Yuan Yuan Tan's gala gown.