Introduction: Asian and Asian American ballet dancers, and Zhong Jing Fang

It’s jarring to love an art form–dance, movies, novels, whatever–and then realize that you don’t see yourself in it. When I first became interested in ballet, that was exactly how I felt: I was astonished by how beautiful it was, how much it could say, and was surprised by how much I loved it, instantly. Then I wondered where all the dancers who looked like me were. There is a natural comfort, I think, that comes from knowing who you know you are and seeing a dancer or artist who looks like you–or who comes from the same ethnic or racial background as you. It is a way of knowing that this too is within your reach, even if the connection is purely aesthetic, and has no real connection to what you yourself could physically accomplish. It’s about possibility.

That said, I’m inaugurating a series of posts on Asian and Asian American ballet dancers. The first such dancer that really caught my attention was Zhong Jing Fang, a corps dancer with American Ballet Theatre.

Fang was a Prix de Lausanne winner in 2000; prior to that, she trained mainly at the Shanghai Ballet School, having been one of 18 selected out of a pool of 2,000 students at ten years old (see her practicing her Black Swan fouettes here). She’s been with ABT since 2003, and has been in the corps since.

I wish I could say more about her dancing, but I haven’t seen her outside of youtube. Alas. Luckily she is well represented on said website.

Dancing the Diana variation at 16 years old.

A really wonderful video of Fang dancing a variation from Raymonda in all her long-legged loveliness here.

Again, I wish I could find more information about her, but outside of her Gaynor Minden spokeswoman role (see below), I couldn’t find much. I do recall an interview with her that said that upon coming to the US to dance, she was very homesick for her parents. In years to come, I would love a chance to see her dancing more roles outside of the corps.

12 thoughts on “Introduction: Asian and Asian American ballet dancers, and Zhong Jing Fang

  1. satsumaart

    To me she just looks underfed and gawky, but that’s why I’m a modern dancer and not in ballet. 😉

    I’m excited you’re writing about AA dancers, though! I do still get that “yippee!” of recognition every time I see Asians doing something I want to do… however, in the case of dancers like Fang I also feel a familiar sense of being the fat Asian compared to all the other sylphlike Asian girls. ;b

  2. petitechablis

    I think seeing yourself, or people like yourself, in a pursuit you love can be incredibly important. Did you read the New York Times article on “typing,” the idea that people tend to go into fields where they see people like themselves excelling, and may stay away from fields where they don’t see people like themselves? It’s being batted around as a theory for why there aren’t more conservative professors — academia has been “typed” as liberal. Ditto nursing and men — it’s a great career and in high demand, but it’s been typed as female and so men don’t go into it because they assume it’s not for them. It’s sort of fancy academic jargon for the importance of role models, but I think it’s a fascinating concept.

    Based on my own little-girl fantasies of being a ballerina, I could definitely see how ballet would be typed as Caucasian, so I’m glad to see rising stars from Asia in the mix too!

  3. A

    You’ll probably like this

    Being Caucasian, I can definitely see how a ballerina is perceived to be Caucasian. I’d have to say though there are many Asians in the adult class I’m taking.

  4. avesraggiana

    Hi, I’ve been following your blog for a few months now and I’m quite charmed by it. Your latest on Asian ballerinas has me particularly intrigued and captivated. I also recommend watching the youtube clip of Yuhui Choe, a Korean-born Japanese ballerina now dancing for the Royal Ballet of England. The link provided by “A” takes you right to her. I believe Yuhui Choe was recently promoted to Principal at the RB. I came to ballet during the ascendancy of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova during the mid to late seventies. I remember my own parents telling me that I could never be a world-famous ballet dancer because there were no world famous Asian ballet dancers, never mind Filipino ballet dancers, of wide reknown. Of course my parents had vastly different ideas about what I was to be when I grew up – Doctor, Engineer, Accountant, etc – but a ballet dancer? to just dance as a career? impossible. Of course my own parents had no way of knowing about the likes of Yoko Morishita and Tetsutaro Shimizu, Japanese husband-and-wife-dancers who were famous within the ballet world during the late ’70s and early ’80s. All they knew was that there were no Filipino Baryshnikovs or Makarovas to the grace the world’s stages and my nascent dreams of becoming a ballet dancer would simply come to nothing. Well, here I am, now in my mid-forties. long since retired from dancing and still taking ballet classes with the company I used to dance for on a semi-professional basis here in San Diego. I never did become world famous, I never even got beyond the corps de ballet, but I had a really, really grand time following my own dream for as long as I could ride it. I didn’t have all the natural physical attributes that make an ideal classical ballet dancer but I had enthusiasm and dramatic flair and just the right physicality for some character parts, and those few precious solo roles were as rewarding a life experience as any I’ve had before, or since.

    Tangentially, I remember Asians in classical ballet being talked about with some disdain and even a little pity. I even recall a magazine interview with former Kirov ballerina, Gabriela Komleva, declaring with unshakeable authority that Asian dancers, while beautiful to watch and certainly technically capable, could never successfully essay the myriad Petipa ballerina variations in “Raymonda”, “La Esmeralda”, “La Bayadere”, “Don Quixote”, “Sleeping Beauty” or “Swan Lake” because Asian ballerinas tended to dance everything in the same, uninflected, unvaried and get this, “obsequious” (!) style. Imagine saying such a thing! It would be years later that I would realizee that La Komleva was really echoing the mistaken prejudices of her culture and her day, complete in her conviction that only white, European ballerinas, and in particular, Russian ballerinas, could ever dance Petipa-Minkus-Tchaikovsky in the proper style. I understand black dancers in America faced their own set of mistaken preconceptions held by white practitioners and pedagogues, when they would try to break into the world of classical ballet.

    Please continue writing your very entertaining and informative blog. I take great pleasure in reading your thoughts about the world of ballet from the perspective of an adult avocation.

  5. apricot Post author

    Satsuma, I agree that in general ballerinas tend to look, well, almost painfully thin. As for feeling like the odd one out, join the club. The odd one out club (self-defeating in every way, no? If you joined said club, you would no longer even be the odd one out)!

    Petite–typing is very interesting indeed. If only I had the math skills to fulfill the kind of typing associated with my ethnic background. 😛

    A, thanks for that! I will definitely have a post on Yuhui Choe at some point; she is lovely. I think I linked to her “day in the life of video” in a previous post…

    Avesraggiana, thank you for your wonderful comment. It’s a humbling pleasure to know that the mental meanderings hereabouts are interesting to someone like you. I think I’ll have to have a post on Morishita and Shimizu one day soon. And I don’t know as many Filipino ballet dancers as I’d like, excepting Noelani Pantastico, who I believe is part Filipino, part Chinese, Hawaiian, etc.

    Actually, if you’d like to write a guest post as part of this series about your career experience and/or reflections, replete w/photos, that would be very cool indeed. If you’re interested, just say yes in the comments and I’ll email you. 🙂

  6. avesraggiana

    Oh, thank you, Apricot, for your kind invitation. I’m really quite flattered. Truly, anything you write would be of far more interest to any of your readers than anything I could possibly offer. But, thank you again.

    In re-reading my comment I realized I hadn’t gotten around to addressing the point of your blog entry; that the possibility of pursuing anything that inspires one, is remote indeed if one has no role models to follow. Is it any wonder then that at the tender age of fourteen when I first expressed an interest in professional ballet dancing, that I was so willing to believe the my parents when they made the unassailably logical point that because no Filipino ballet dancers graced any of the world’s most prestigious stages, I could no more aspire to a career in classical ballet than I could fly to the moon by flapping my ears…

    I’m so gratified now that classical ballet has become more universal. Who could not appreciate the crystalline beauty of the dancing of Yuan-Yuan Tan of SFB? or the Dresden-China quality of Miyako Yoshida of the Royal Ballet?

    Ooh, another opportunity to drop names! Yoko Ichino, anyone? She was an ABT soloist and a star-ballerina in the making, during the late ’70s and early ’80s. She was even partnered on several occasions with Mikhail Baryshnikov in his then brand new production of “Don Quixote”. Regrettably, when Baryshnikov took over as the Artistic Director of ABT, she was summarily dropped from the roster, probably because her physique and the shape of her feet didn’t match up to the ideal SAB-body that Baryshnikov was bringing into the company.

    Keep up the great writing, Apricot.

  7. apricot Post author

    Thanks, avesraggiana; really, I’d love to hear your story, and I’m sure anyone else who reads this blog will as well. So if you change your mind (and I hope you do), you know you have a standing invitation here. 🙂

  8. Katie K.

    Hello! I’m an Asian girl who got adopted five years ago! I now go to a dance company for all types of dancing! My favorite type of dancing is ballet! Next year I’m hoping to be on point shoes! I just wanted to say that loved your pictures and videos! What a nice line whenever you lift your legs, or your arms up! I’m jelous of your turns! Vist my site soon!

  9. Curmudgeon

    I’m not quite sure how “ZJ” Fang and my daughter Fiona became friends, but they did. We live in LA. Fiona is 1/4 Chinese, 1/4 Polish and 1/2 Irish, what Hawaiians call “a cosmoplitan”. She took ballet from age 4; her last teacher was Tatiana Riabuchinska, one of the famous “baby ballerinas”, widow of choreographer David Lichine. Fiona danced with several ballet companies back East for a number of years. Then came home, entered academe, got her PhD in a whole different field. All this is background to their friendship.

    We always attend when ABT comes to LA, and take ZJ to dinner after performance. I love seeing them greet each other after a year’s absence – they hug, and squeal, and jump up and down like a couple of teenagers! I feel like a surrogate father to ZJ.

    My Fiona, who ought to know, says that Zhong-Jing Fang is what she calls “a miracle dancer”. She says that ABT has not yet recognized what a treasure they have in the artistic stature of ZJ. Also that ABT should be giving ZJ much better roles than they have up to now.

    I’m only a clumsy and ignorant father who loves them both, but I agree a hundred per cent..

    1. apricot Post author

      Hi Curmudgeon,

      That’s very cool that your daughter Fiona and Fang were friends! It’s wonderful to hear about the non-ballet lives of dancers…

  10. Pingback: » Zhong Jing Fang Count Me In Kids

  11. Chantal

    I’m a year too late to this post, but I wanted to add that you should check out Sono Osato. She is half Japanese and half caucasian. She was the first American and the first Japanese person ever to be in the Ballet Russe. She was also in a film with Frank Sinatra, among other things. I find her fascinating and the fact that she was dancing during WWII is pretty amazing. She is still alive today and has a memoir called ‘Distant Dances’.


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