A Tribute to Yuan Yuan Tan and Her 29-Season Career at San Francisco Ballet

February 14, 2024

The first time I saw San Francisco Ballet principal Yuan Yuan Tan dance was as a 9-year-old child in the early aughts. When my dad took me across Bay Bridge to see my dream company, even he, a dance-world outsider, could see that Tan was a consummate artist. The carriage of her port de bras was wide and fluid, stoking currents of air we could practically feel in the opera house’s upper tiers. Her épaulement was regal—cheekbones always tilted just so, catching the stage lights and reflecting a radiance that warmed every audience member in attendance.

  • During a performance of Giselle, Yuan Yuan Tan, wearing a blue and white peasant dress, kneels down and touches her face. She looks out into the distance, her long black hairdown and messy. A large corps of male and female dancers in peasant costumes stand behind her, watching with concerned looks on their faces.
  • During a performance of The Little Mermaid, Tiit Helimets lifts Yuan Yuan Tan onto his right shoulder. She balances on her hips and extends her legs back, lifting her right leg slightly higher and reaching her right arm back. She bends her left elbow and tucks her left hand under her chin as she looks out into the audience. Helimets wears a turquoise biketard with tank straps. Tan wears a turquoise bodice and long turquoise skirt that wraps around her feet.
  • Yuan Yuan Tan jumps up with her crossed feet slightly tucked up underneath her during a performance of Giselle. She lifts her arms to fourth arabesque and looks out over her left hand. Tan wears a long white Romantic tutu, pink tights, and pointe shoes.
  • In this black and white photo, YUan YUan Tan lunges low on her right leg, stretching her left leg out diagonally behind her and her arms out to the side as she looks over her right shoulder. Muriel Maffre does an arabesque on pointe next to Tan on her right side, pressing both arms back and looking up. Three women stand in B plus behind them onstage. All of the dancers wear white leotards and short white skirts, tights and pointe shoes.

Born in Shanghai, Tan joined San Francsico Ballet in 1995 as a soloist when she was just a teenager and quickly rose to become the company’s youngest and first Chinese principal dancer. On February 14, her 48th birthday, she will give her final SFB performance at the War Memorial Opera House, in Sir Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand, after a nearly three-decade career with the company.

Yuan Yuan Tan on the June/July 2003 cover of Pointe.

I had the honor of attending San Francisco Ballet School and sharing space with Tan—or “YY,” as her friends affectionately call her—during Nutcracker studio runs. In rehearsal mode, ballerinas have sweaty practice tutus and hair wisps in place of bejeweled bodices and tiaras. Despite the stripped-down setting, Tan effortlessly transformed into the Sugar Plum Fairy, but it was her work ethic that struck me most. After her variation was complete, while then-SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson was giving notes to a page or to young Clara, Tan would be on the side with her partner, trying a tricky lift again and again, polishing the transition to perfection.

And, of course, there were her performances. While Tan’s acting in tragic roles like Giselle and Odette could squeeze your heart, it was her Odile that I couldn’t get enough of. As the White Swan’s wily doppelgänger, Tan had an almost manic gleam in her eye. In contemporary and neoclassical repertoire, her dancing was pure poetry, weaving emotion into plotless vignettes like Tomasson’s 7 for Eight and Wheeldon’s After the Rain pas de deux. In narrative works like John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid, Tan exhibited an emotive arc few ballerinas can match. As the ballet’s title character, Tan’s discovery of her (impossibly articulated) feet and long legs seemed genuine, as if she was marveling at human limbs for the first time. Her pain at walking on two feet, at unrequited love, at her heartbreaking return to her watery home, transported full audiences to those dark depths.

Yuan Yuan Tan stands in a sus-sous on pointe, her body in croisé towards stage left. She leans into her hips slightly and arches back, lifting her left arm up and right arm to the side. She wears a tan colored leotard with a white squiggle design on it, and tan pointe shoes. She performs onstage in front of a dark backdrop with a dark orange spherical projection behind her.
Tan in Edwaard Liang’s The Infinite Ocean. Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB.

Anyone who saw Tan perform could admire her artistry and technique. As a young dancer of Chinese descent, I also looked up to her efforts offstage. In 2009, the company embarked on its first tour of China, Tan leading the way as a cultural ambassador between the country where she was born and the one where she made her home. Throughout her career, she has championed Chinese American artists in the San Francisco Bay Area and received numerous accolades and awards from cultural institutions in China. Tan’s example is a reminder to connect more, to share more, to build bridges through the power of art. A tribute piece to Tan’s mother, choreographed by Yuri Possokhov during the COVID lockdowns, was a reminder to call my own mother and watch a streamed ballet together and reminisce about performances past.

From magazine covers to fashion ads, children’s books and, of course, to stages across the world, Tan has left an indelible mark on our art form. For those of us who had the honor to witness any of her nearly three-decade career up close, that mark has raised the bar of what a true artist should be.