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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.

News
Courtesy Russell

Gregg Russell, an Emmy-nominated choreographer known for his passionate and energetic teaching, passed away unexpectedly on Sunday, November 22, at the age of 48.

While perhaps most revered as a master tap instructor and performer, Russell also frequently taught hip-hop and musical theater classes, showcasing a versatility that secured him a successful career onstage and in film and television, both nationally and abroad.


His resumé reads like an encyclopedia of popular culture. Russell worked with celebrities such as Bette Midler and Gene Kelly; coached pop icon Michael Jackson and Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane; danced in the classic films Clueless and Newsies; performed on "Dancing with the Stars" and the Latin Grammy Awards; choreographed for Sprite and Carvel Ice Cream; appeared with music icons Reba McEntire and Jason Mraz; and graced stages from coast to coast, including Los Angeles' House of Blues and New York City's Madison Square Garden.

But it was as an educator that Russell arguably found his calling. His infectious humor, welcoming aura and inspirational pedagogy made him a favorite at studios, conventions and festivals across the U.S. and in such countries as Australia, France, Honduras and Guatemala. Even students with a predilection for classical styles who weren't always enthused about studying a percussive form would leave Russell's classes grinning from ear to ear.

"Gregg understood from a young age how to teach tap and hip hop with innovation, energy and confidence," says longtime dance educator and producer Rhee Gold, who frequently hired Russell for conferences and workshops. "He gave so much in every class. There was nothing I ever did that I didn't think Gregg would be perfect for."

Growing up in Wooster, Ohio, Russell was an avid tap dancer and long-distance runner who eventually told his mother, a dance teacher, that he wanted to exclusively pursue dance. She introduced him to master teachers Judy Ann Bassing, Debbi Dee and Henry LeTang, whom he credited as his three greatest influences.

"I was instantly smitten, though competitive with him," says longtime friend and fellow choreographer Shea Sullivan, a protégé of LeTang. "Over the years we developed a mutual respect and admiration for each other. He touched so many lives. This is a great loss."

After graduating from Wooster High School, Russell was a scholarship student at Edge Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, where he lived for many years. He founded a company, Tap Sounds Underground, taught at California Dance Theatre and even returned to Edge as an instructor, all while maintaining a busy travel schedule.

A beloved member of the tap community, Russell not only spoke highly of his contemporaries, but earned his place among them as a celebrated performing artist and teacher. With friend Ryan Lohoff, with whom he appeared on CBS's "Live to Dance," he co-directed Tap Into The Network, a touring tap intensive founded in 2008.

"His humor, giant smile and energy in his eyes are the things I will remember most," says Lohoff. "He inspired audiences and multiple generations of dancers. I am grateful for our time together."

Russell was on the faculty of numerous dance conventions, such as Co. Dance and, more recently, Artists Simply Human. He was known as a "teacher's teacher," having discovered at the young age of 18 that he enjoyed passing on his knowledge to other dance educators. He wrote tap teaching tips for Dance Studio Life magazine and led classes for fellow instructors whenever he was on tour.

In 2018, he opened a dance studio, 3D Dance, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he had been living most recently.

Russell leaves behind a wife, Tessa, and a 5-year-old daughter, Lucy.


"His success was his family and his daughter," says Gold. "They changed his entire being. He was a happy man."

GoFundMe campaigns to support Russell's family can be found here and here.

Teaching Tips
@jayplayimagery, courtesy Blackstone

Zoom classes have created a host of challenges to overcome, but this new way of learning has also had some surprising perks. Students and educators are becoming more adaptable. Creativity is blossoming even amid space constraints. Dancers have been able to broaden their horizons without ever leaving home.

In short, in a year filled with setbacks, there is still a lot to celebrate. Dance Teacher spoke to four teachers about the virtual victories they've seen thus far and how they hope to keep the momentum going back in the classroom.

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News
Betty Jones in The Moor's Pavane, shot for Dance Magazine's "Dancers You Should Know" series in 1955. Zachary Freyman, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow

An anchor of the Humphrey-Limón legacy for more than 70 years, Betty Jones died at her home in Honolulu on November 17, 2020. She remained active well into her 90s, most recently leading a New York workshop with her husband and partner, Fritz Ludin, in October 2019.

Betty May Jones was born on June 11, 1926 in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and moved with her family to the Albany, New York, area, where she began taking dance classes. Just after she turned 15 in 1941, she began serious ballet study at Jacob's Pillow, which was under the direction of Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova for the season. Over the next three summers as a scholarship student, Jones expanded her range and became an integral part of Jacob's Pillow. Among her duties was working in the kitchen, where her speedy efficiency earned her the nickname of "Lightning."

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