As hate crimes against Asian Americans soar across the nation, the Oakland Ballet is uplifting the community through dance by celebrating the work of Asian American and Pacific Islander choreographers.
The “Dancing Moons Festival,” opening Thursday at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, highlights new works by five choreographers pushing boundaries in the dance world. Among the premieres is the West Coast debut of New York-based dancer and activist Phil Chan’s “Ballet des Porcelaines or The Teapot Prince,” a dance that turns the tables on a 280-year-old European ballet with problematic depictions of Asian culture.
In a statement, artistic director Graham Lustig said the Oakland Ballet is honored to be the first West Coast company to present Chan’s “Ballet des Porcelaines” and to help the ballet field evolve.
Subscribe to our weekly arts & culture newsletter
“In the wake of continued bigotry and violence targeting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, we are proud to give a platform to such talented choreographers,” Lustig said.
Chan’s reinterpretation of the little-known 18th century pantomime dance is a highlight of the festival, and it reflects the important work the choreographer has been doing with Final Bow for Yellowface, the nonprofit organization he cofounded to eliminate offensive representations of Asians in the dance world.
Since launching the initiative in 2017, more than 100 dance leaders including ballerina Misty Copeland, choreographer Mark Morris and Oakland Ballet’s Lustig have signed a pledge to do their part to rid the stage of harmful and racist stereotypes.
Reinterpreting an 18th century ballet with a central character based on a caricature of Asian culture gives Chan the opportunity to spread his message in real time. It also gives new life to a work created for European elites that can now be enjoyed by contemporary multiracial audiences.
Commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Chan’s take on “Ballet des Porcelaines” has a fascinating backstory. It is based on the libretto of a 15-minute “divertissement,” or Baroque pantomime dance.
Written by Comte de Caylus, a French antiquarian, artist and scholar, the original ballet is a fairy tale cloaked in racial stereotypes: a Chinese sorcerer rules an island and has turned all of its inhabitants into porcelain. A prince and princess come to the island, and the sorcerer transforms the prince into a porcelain object. To save her partner, the princess must lure the sorcerer and steal his wand so the prince and all the island’s inhabitants can come back to life. The evil sorcerer is then transformed into a porcelain “pagod,” an exaggerated and parodic Chinese-style figurine popular in 18th century Europe.
The ballet debuted in Paris in 1739, and after only one other known staging in 1741, it was never performed again. More than 280 years later, the libretto was discovered at the National Library of Paris by scholar Esther Bell, who recommended it to her friend, art historian Meredith Martin. Martin met choreographer Chan and after learning about his work with Final Bow for Yellowface, the pair embarked on restaging the ballet. The rest is history.
In addition to “Ballet des Porcelaines,” the festival includes the debut of a new pas de deux by Chan accompanied live by Korean American concert pianist Min Kwon. Other works include a quintet by former Oakland Ballet principal dancer Michael Lowe, a new work by New York-based choreographer Caili Quan and a piece for four dancers by sisters Megan and Shannon Kurashige, founders and directors of San Francisco-based contemporary dance company Sharp & Fine.
“Dancing Moons Festival” takes place at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Oakland Asian Cultural Center, 388 Ninth St., Suite 290, Oakland. Tickets are $40-$45. The festival will be reprised at 8 p.m. April 2 at Bankhead Theatre, 2400 First St., Livermore. Tickets are $20-$68. For more information, visit https://oaklandballet.org/.