Phil Chan is no stranger to confronting stereotypes on the stage. From co-founding Final Bow for Yellowface, to writing his first book, "Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing between Intention and Impact,” Chan has advocated for the elimination of prejudiced representations of Asian characters in ballet.
The idea for Chan’s newest book, “Banishing Orientalism: Dancing between Exotic and Familiar,” came from his fellowship at the New York Public Library in 2020 when he saw just how many ballets adopted “exotic” locations to tell their stories.
“I looked at about a hundred orientalist ballets from Louis XIV to today,” Chan said. “I wanted to know: what’s the appeal of that? When you set a story in an exotic place like Asia, what are you doing?”
As Chan learned, ballets created in early Europe were set in different regions of the world to explore cultural taboos without fear of pushback as well as to show audiences something “different” despite having no real knowledge of the cultures being depicted.
“If you don’t know what those people over there look like, you have to make it up,” Chan said. “New rhythms, new ways of moving the body, new ways of dancing, these things you could explore in an oriental setting.”
While these ballets were innovative and pushed the creative boundaries, Chan saw a problem performing these old Euro-centric works in today’s multi-racial world.
“That’s what this book is about,” Chan said. “It’s looking at history but also proposing solutions to move forward as an art form, to keep tradition alive without canceling tradition but also making it more inclusive.”
Chan hopes the book changes the way lovers of ballet and opera consume the art forms, offering a racialized lens that some may not have looked through before.
“If you really love the art form, you want as many people as possible to love what you love and see what you see and share in that beauty,” Chan said.
Chan is also working closely with the Jacobs School of Music Ballet Theater department to bring to life a revised production of “La Bayadere,” a classical ballet piece set to debut at the Musical Arts Center in 2024.
The book is available for pre-order now on Amazon. It will be officially released on Jan. 22.