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Tan Yuan Yuan on Balanchine's Serenade, striving for perfection and the Hong Kong ballet scene

One of the greatest ballerinas in Asia arrives in Hong Kong for HK Ballet's monster 2015-16 season finale

Chris Hardy

As one of the most influential Chinese artists of our time, Tan Yuan Yuan has built a reputation as one of the world’s greatest ballerinas, winning numerous international awards and training at some of the best dance schools on the planet. From Shanghai to Stuttgart, Tan has taken lead female roles in famous dance performances such as Giselle and Nutcracker, each time leaving audiences in awe of her disciplined, delicate movement and form.

Her talent was recognised early in her life, but joining the San Francisco Ballet Company at the age of 18 launched Tan to new heights. At the age of 20, she became the youngest dancer to be promoted principal dancer – the highest position in the company. Today, she continues to expand her already massive repertoire, taking on and even creating challenging new roles, never shying from her limits. We speak to Tan as she arrives to the Hong Kong stage, prepared to tell the romantic story of George Balachine’s Serenade in Hong Kong Ballet’s 2015-16 season finale.    

What inspires you about dance? Who are your influences?
For me, dance is about the aesthetics, and the hard work that goes into creating something so beautiful. Motivation and dedication to the craft is what pushes me to do my best, to always strive to do better, and the outcome is always worth it. I remember watching Audrey Hepburn dancing in movies and I was inspired by how graceful she looked, though I understand it was no easy task.

Is Balanchine’s work very different from the work of other artists? What sets it apart?                     
Balanchine’s style is very difficult. What sets his work apart is that the footwork is very fast, particularly the sharp, athletic way of doing the step. It’s very particular and requires a lot more focus.

How do you find Hong Kong’s Ballet scene? What do you like most about it?
I think Hong Kong’s ballet audience is very sophisticated in the sense that they are able to find the beauty in good performances. I enjoy the Hong Kong Arts Festival, when dance companies come through to perform every year, and it’s nice to know that the audiences are familiar with the work and are able to appreciate it that much more. 

What is the central message of Serenade?
Serenade is focused on women, but there’s a range of diversity, such as a dark angel. There are different elements to the characters, but it combines together to create such a beautiful dance. The most beautiful scene is when they dance together with their hair down. 

What drew you to your role in Serenade?
The beauty and movement of Balachine ballet. I was also drawn to the challenge.

What was the most challenging part of the piece?
The most challenging part is how you articulate your movements. The goal is to seem as effortless as possible in your movements, while still evoking the emotions of the character. The timing is everything, although sometimes things can go wrong in a live performance. I try to have a fast reaction to fix the problem – it’s not like movies and television where you have many chances to correct yourself. That is the thrill of performing in front of a live audience.

How has ballet developed you as a person?
I think ballet has influenced my personality a lot in the sense that I am very disciplined in all of my endeavours. I am always on time; I take things very seriously. I’ve built up my inner strength and self-esteem over time as I’ve improved as a dancer. 

What is the most fulfilling aspect of the ballet production process?
The ending – it’s the moment when you realise that all your hard work has paid off. Each performance feels closer than the last to gaining perfection.

Check out the trailer for HK Ballet's Serenade and More below:

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