Oakland Ballet gives 'final bow for yellowface' while raising curtain on more inclusive future

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- When Phil Chan's Ballet de Porcelaines or the Teapot Prince debuts at the Oakland Ballet's Dancing Moons Festival March 24, it will mark the 57-year-old ballet company's commitment to a growing anti-racist initiative.

"We're really trying to shift this art form into being more inclusive or else it dies," said Phil Chan, co-founder of the Final Bow for Yellowface.

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Chan co-founded Final Bow for Yellowface in 2017 as a call to action to diversify ballet companies while eliminating offensive stereotypes of Asians seen in ballet.

Since 2017, most major American ballet companies have agreed to the pledge.

The Oakland Ballet is one of those companies that signed on and is now making good on its word, uplifting Asian American choreographers, dancers, composers, and designers in the Dancing Moons Festival.

The Dancing Moons Festival will take place over two weekends from March 24 - April 2.

The first weekend, March 24 - 26 is presented in collaboration with the Oakland Asian Cultural Center.

Concerts take place Thursday to Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with an additional matinee on Saturday at 2:30 p.m.

On the second weekend, April 1 - 2, Oakland Ballet moves to the Bankhead Theater in Livermore with concerts on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $68 and can be purchased on the Oakland Ballet's website.

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"We're staying true to the libretto and the music, but we're just flipping the script. So instead of it being about triumphing over Asian people, it's about Asian people saying, 'Hey, don't treat us as dolls.' You know, 'see us with nuance," said Chan.

For too long the representation of Asian people and cultures in ballet has centered around demeaning depictions.

Fan favorites like the Nutcracker for decades featured bigoted stereotypes.

Dancers in the "Chinese Tea Dance" have sported Fu Manchu mustaches and featured white performers wearing yellowface in many variations.

Chan says most American ballets have now altered this dance sequence and are instead opting for costumes and makeup that celebrate rather than appropriate or demean Asian culture.

"I think it's part of a larger coalition of primarily artists of color questioning whose experience is at the center of this art form that we all collectively love," said Chan.

Chan is working with a team of Asian American artists, costume designers, and composers to reimagine the ballet dating back to the 18th-century.

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"Phil Chan's work is a step in the process of showing people who come and see dance that Asians are not just a caricature, we are as human as anyone else," said Lawrence Chen, an Oakland Ballet dancer.

Chen plays the prince in the forthcoming production.

"I'm so proud of what we're doing as an organization. It's so unique in the world of dance. I just think it's vital work," said Graham Lustig, artistic director of the Oakland Ballet.

This message is not only vital, but timely.

The festival runs as the country continues to deal with a drastic rise in reported attacks and hate crimes against Asian Americans.

It's a reality that is not escaping these artists.

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"This is very personal to me as well, because my dad has been too afraid to leave the house and even has been wary of actually coming into Oakland and seeing the performances," said Chan.

Co-artistic directors, sisters, Megan and Shannon Kurashige are also debuting new works at the festival.

The duo are the founders and directors of San Francisco-based contemporary dance company Sharp & Fine.

The Kurashiges are proud to be in conversation with other Asian choreographers in the festival, an opportunity never afforded to them as dancers.

"Everyone's actually kind of the same at the end of the day, right? And isn't it fun that we're just a little bit different," said Shannon Kurashige.

For more on the Dancing Moons Festival and to buy tickets, visit Oakland Ballet's website.

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