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NYCB's Georgina Pazcoguin on Her New Initiative to Eliminate Asian Stereotypes in Ballet

New York City Ballet soloist Georgina Pazcoguin. Photo by Nick Nakahara, Courtesy Pazcoguin.

As conversations in the ballet world about race and representation have opened up in the past few years, its most beloved holiday tradition, The Nutcracker, has come under scrutiny as well. Last year New York City Ballet made changes to its second act Chinese Tea variation, removing elements of racial caricature from both the costume and makeup and the choreography.

NYCB soloist Georgina Pazcoguin, who is part Filipino, was one of the voices fighting for that change. This year, as companies and schools worldwide are gearing up for Nutcracker season, Pazcoguin, along with former dancer and arts administrator Phil Chan, is back with a new campaign. Final Bow For Yellowface is an online platform dedicated to educating companies and schools on how to veer away from offensive Asian stereotypes (yellowface) and providing resources on how to make those changes. The site also lets readers join dance world luminaries including Virginia Johnson, Julie Kent, Adam Sklute, Troy Schumacher and Christopher Wheeldon in signing a pledge to end the practice of yellowface onstage. We touched base with Pazcoguin to hear about how this initiative came to be, and what she and Chan have in the works for the future.


How long has Final Bow for Yellowface been in the works?

The idea for the site came about following New York City Ballet's diversity initiative. I helped plant a seed that turned into a meaningful conversation last November. Former director Peter Martins invited Phil in to discuss how to modify NYCB's Tea variation to be less insensitive. We thought, if NYCB is open to change, why not everyone else? The pledge is a way for us to consolidate conversations that are already happening in communities all across America and lead by example. Over the past year, we have reached out to many major ballet companies to start conversations about Nutcracker (and other ballets that include caricatures of Asians).

Pazcoguin and Chan note on their site that the Chinese dance is often the only Nutcracker variation in which dancers are asked to wear makeup and wigs intended to make them look like members of a race other than their own. NYCB's original tea variation, pictured here, featured wigs and makeup that create a caricature. Click through to see the redesign. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.


What are your thoughts on NYCB's changes to the Tea variation?

While the variation has removed the caricature, it now lacks some of the character. I think there is opportunity to explore more character development, but in a respectful way. It is the Kingdom of the Sweets after all; why not lean into a more confectionary direction?

Phil and I worked with dance historian Doug Fullington at Pacific Northwest Ballet, who was able to go back to the Stepanov notation from the early 20th century and recreate the original Chinese dance. To see it on live bodies, even on film, was very powerful for me. The variation is fun, spritely, crisp, wickedly difficult and dazzling. The best part was there was not a whiff of caricature at all. It just demonstrated that so much of what we have put into the ballet over the years, like the problematic "Fu Manchu" depictions, has come from outside the original choreography. Seeing the playfulness in the original helped me regain my faith in the ballet.

Pazcoguin as Dewdrop in NYCB's "Nutcracker." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

What do you think it means to have a dancer spearheading this campaign? How are you using your personal experience to make a difference?

I think it delivers remarkable impact. Dancers aren't accustomed to using their voices to express themselves. There seems to be this idea that our power is in the images we create with our bodies, and that our opinions aren't as important or articulate. This is clearly a falsehood.

I know what it's like to be the outlier in the rehearsal room. That's where my branding "The Rogue Ballerina" came from: recognizing my differences, be it the shape of my body or the shade of my skin, which others have seen as negative, and spinning them into positive attributes. I've been with the company for 18 years, so I have seen it change dramatically. The heightened interest in diversity in dance, and the rising profiles of so many other dancers of color had me asking questions about my own experience with race. Yellowface is very much a part of that conversation for me on a personal level.

If you could send a call to action to dancers, what would it be?

Don't be afraid to start discussions with your teachers, studio owners, and artistic directors about yellowface or other cultural representations in your local Nutcracker. I doubt that anyone is intentionally trying to offend anyone or make anyone uncomfortable, but rather that there's a lack of awareness. Start with compassion, and have a constructive conversation about how to make your production more inclusive. If folks out there need help getting the conversation started, we have a lot of resources on the page.


San Franzisko Ballett Der Nussknacker youtu.be

Pazcoguin and Chan note that San Francisco Ballet's Chinese variation is a strong example of how to respect and evoke Chinese culture without falling into offensive stereotypes.

What's next for Final Bow for Yellowface?

Phil and I focused in on Asian culture, but there are so many other caricatures that could be respectfully tweaked while maintaining the original integrity of the work. Applying these updates only enhances a masterpiece and allows all to enjoy it. There are a lot of conversations within Nutcracker around the Arabian variation that are also in this vein. We will have to start asking ourselves about some of the 19th century warhorses like Le Corsaire and La Bayadère, as well. And there are still some issues with blackface in Petrushka and Othello. I'm hoping my own company will review its American and Asian portrayals of Aurora's suitors in our upcoming production of Sleeping Beauty.

I think our larger goal is already being accomplished. Whether companies are signing on to our pledge or not, we are talking about these issues now as a larger national dance community, and the conversations that have been happening across the country have been consolidated into positive action. We realize this is a multi-year conversation, and are happy to be a resource to any companies who want to make sure they are portraying Asians respectfully. Then when it's time to put up the Christmas lights and entertain our children with holiday tradition, we do so with the respect inherent in a global citizen's lens.

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Valentina Bagala and Rafael Savino held their studio's very first registration at a Subway. "We didn't even have an office," says Bagala, who heads the artistic side of Ascendance Studio in Doral, Florida. "This lady called us over the phone, and we said, 'OK, we can take your registration. Would you mind meeting us at the Subway that's downstairs from our studio?'"

Now, five years later, Ascendance is thriving, with a growing competitive team, a 5,000-square-foot space and 300 students—one of whom is the same dancer who was registered in that Subway. Today, registration mostly happens online, as do many of Ascendance's processes—attendance, billing, e-mail marketing campaigns—thanks to Savino, who heads the studio's marketing, finances and administration. To what do Bagala and Savino credit their impressive growth? Digital advertising. Despite working in an industry where many still rely on old-school methods of operation—manual registration, tuition paid in person by cash or check, fliers handed out in parking lots—they took the plunge to modernize their advertising strategy and found it a game changer for their studio.

Slow, but consistent

Bagala and Savino admit Ascendance got off to a rocky start. They rented space from a fitness studio for three months. "We didn't get the best schedule," says Bagala, who could only rent the space by the hour when it wasn't being used. Still, she managed to amass 25 students. Eventually, she found a small, 550-square-foot space of her own in a shopping center. "I remember for our first classes, we would have people who were supposed to show up but didn't," says Savino. "If we had one student in class, we had to teach to that student. That happened multiple times."

When two more spaces became available in the same shopping center, the couple grabbed them, despite the inconvenience of the units not being connected. "You had to step outside," says Bagala. "It wasn't very comfortable."

"The fliers weren't working."

With more space came more responsibility—to increase enrollment. They had been passing out fliers at nearby schools, but that approach, Savino says, "became unscalable. That's when I started looking at digital advertising." He didn't have much money to spend on it—his budget was $5/day—but he began looking into advertising on Google. He also enrolled in a local digital marketing course at nearby Miami-Dade College. "That gave me strategy," he says.

His most successful venture has been with Google's AdWords. With this advertising strategy, business owners create a search ad. (Search ads appear above Google search results when people look for local services the business offers.) The Ascendance search ad, for example, includes the studio website and phone number, plus: "Dance classes for kids. All ages and styles. Try a free class today." Then, you choose keywords—the words or phrases potential customers might type into their browser—and set a daily budget for how much you'd like to "bid" on each keyword. You're charged only if users click your link. During his first AdWords campaign, Savino often bid less than $1 on keywords like "ballet classes," "hip-hop classes," "jazz" and "dance studio."

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"For example, let's say there's a huge competitor who's bidding $10 a keyword, while I'm only bidding $1," says Savino. "Google is tracking everything. If users stay on my website for a while and don't click the back button to get back to the search page, Google knows my website is relevant and a good experience." That increases his quality score and gives his search ad odds a boost.

Experimenting, wisely

Savino ran his initial AdWords campaign for about a month in 2013, starting in mid-September—prime back-to-school time. Each week, he wound up getting 10-plus interested customers. He offered each a free trial class. Of that weekly number, more than 80 percent enrolled in classes. By the time the campaign was over, Ascendance had 45 new students. And it all cost him less than $150. Though he risked spending more than his daily allotted $5, he knew it would pay off in increased enrollment.

As they became more comfortable with AdWords, the couple experimented. Bagala asked her mom what words she would use to search if, for example, she were looking for ballet classes for a 5-year-old. Her responses became part of their strategy: "ballet classes in Doral," "dance classes in Doral," "dance studio in Doral." They also interviewed parents of new students, asking 'How did you hear about us?' "If they said, 'Google,'" says Savino, "we'd ask if they remembered what they typed."

Now his daily budget is $20, though he's careful to time campaigns with high-enrollment periods. "During back-to-school season, August and September, I know a lot of people are going to be looking for classes," he says. "But I also know that January is another high-enrollment period—that's when we see an uptick in our baby program. Those moms are operating on a calendar year, not a studio year."

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Last spring, Google itself took an interest in Ascendance, and it featured Savino and Bagala in a national video campaign as a small-business case study. Of particular interest was the studio's dual advertising campaigns: one in English and one in Spanish. Savino and Bagala are bilingual, and their community is largely Spanish-speaking—so they capitalized on that. "Since we were advertising in Spanish," says Savino, "those people were sure that they were going to come through our door and someone would be here who would speak their language."

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