NYCB Soloist Daniel Applebaum Shares the Importance of “What’s the Tea?,” a New YouTube Series Interviewing Ballet Dancers of Asian Descent

June 29, 2020

Sitting in my living room last month being interviewed for the YouTube series “What’s the Tea?,” I talked about my subconscious desire to “pass” as Caucasian, a truth I’d never wanted to admit to myself. I was surprised by how easy it was to be honest with New York City Ballet soloist Georgina Pazcoguin, co-founder of Final Bow for Yellowface, which produced the series. Founded in 2017, FBY is an organization committed to ending offensive stereotypes of Asians in ballet. With “What’s the Tea?,” Pazcoguin and FBY co-founder Phil Chan celebrated May’s Asian Pacific Heritage Month by interviewing 31 ballet dancers of Asian descent. Though Pazcoguin and I have been close colleagues at NYCB for many years, we’d never dug deeply into our shared experiences before. As she gently pushed me to discuss navigating tense work situations and my love of Japanese cooking, I unwittingly began the difficult but essential process of unpacking what it means to be Asian; not only in ballet, but in every aspect of my life.

Applebaum, in black pants, sneakers and a yellow t shirt, guides Stanley with his arm, as Stanley leans into a backbend in jeans and white sneakers.

Daniel Applebaum with Taylor Stanley in Justin Peck’s Times Are Racing. Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

My realization that I had spent much of my early career hoping to be “white enough to succeed” coincided with the greatest civil rights movement of my generation, the worldwide outrage and public protests against systemic racial injustice. While I bristle when confronting my own shortcomings in processing what it means to be a gay, Asian man, I am also aware that much more urgent conversations on Black lives and police brutality are front and center. My desire to pass is an act of complicity in a system that prizes whiteness. I saw being Asian as a liability. Wanting people to misidentify my race speaks directly to a privilege most BIPOC do not have. Chan realizes the debt FBY owes to Black civil rights activists, reminding me that “we wouldn’t be having this conversation [about Asian representation in ballet] without Black advocacy. Without Arthur Mitchell, people wouldn’t be paying attention to us or taking us seriously,” he says. Pazcoguin pointed out that “there is intersectionality to [FBY’s] work. We are a small tile in the greater mosaic of change.

I am the son of a first-generation Japanese woman, and was raised to be proud of my heritage. My mother and father (who is white) instilled in me a deep respect for Japanese culture that I unquestioningly cherished until early adolescence. It was around then, as I was getting more serious about ballet, that I realized I didn’t see any Cavaliers that looked like me. Growing up outside of Washington, D.C., I was fortunate enough to see ballet companies from around the world on tour. For all this variety there seemed to be little diversity (save for the years when Dance Theatre of Harlem came to perform). Later, critiquing New York City Ballet performances with my friends at the School of American Ballet, it became increasingly clear that dreaming about future roles was a more limited affair for dancers of color. My white peers were comfortable telling Asian or Black dancers that they would never perform a role because of how they looked.

Watching, “What’s the Tea?”, commonalities begin to emerge: Asian dancers being conditioned to brush off microaggressions and remain quiet; an implicit understanding that our adjacency to whiteness gets us in the room, but not a seat at the table; thinking that positive change could be achieved by working harder. “I have been made to feel, on so many occasions, like I was drumming up more drama than was necessary,” Pazcoguin recalls, “and I realized, hearing Noelani [Noelani Pantsastico of Pacific Northwest Ballet] and Lia [Lia Cirio of Boston Ballet] share verbatim things said to them that were also said to me, that there’s a pattern here.” While these stories and experiences didn’t surprise me, I wondered why these acts of aggression, big and small, have gone largely unaddressed. “My biggest takeaway is that the Asian experience in ballet is mostly invisible,” says Chan.

By confronting our traumas and realizing that they are, in fact, shared, “What’s the Tea?” has given dancers of Asian descent something that has never existed before: a sense of community. As an asian teenanger joining the corps de ballet at NYCB, I was lucky to have former company member Allen Peiffer as a friend and colleague. Allen was the first person in the ballet world who talked to me about his obachan (Japanese grandmother), and experiences shopping at Asian grocery stores. Later on, Anthony Huxley, who is Filipino, joined NYCB and we became close. Going for bubble tea or dim sum were simple activities that allowed for an unspoken understanding of our shared experience. As I look at all the wonderful artists that participated in “What’s the Tea,” I see brothers and sisters. I see dancers in companies all across America and abroad that have had to advocate for their brilliant artistry in order to forge a path that had not been laid out for us.

Applebaum jumps in the air in a green velvet vest against a green painted backdrop
Daniel Applebaum in George Balanchine’s “Emeralds.” Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB

For all of the series’s virtues, Chan and Pazcoguin realize that this iteration of “What’s the Tea?” has its failings. “I don’t think we got the diversity of Asian experiences that we would have liked,” Chan states. “We did not get any South Asian voices. There seems to be less representation of South Asians in ballet in America, but we should have done better.” Pazcoguin adds that, “we want to be able to give those voices a platform because they’re part of this massive umbrella that is Asianness.”

Watching the interviews, I was struck by how different everyone looks; not just in terms of facial features, but in terms of energy and physicality. We’re not all the same. Every man isn’t a tiny virtuoso, and every woman isn’t a wilting flower. I hope for a future where this variety can exist within a single company alongside a diverse representation of dancers from all backgrounds. Pazcoguin hopes this platform, “gives [young Asian dancers] a plethora of options from which to choose a role model, and see that they are welcome into the world of ballet.” Now is the time for the ballet community to let us know we are all welcome.