Asian Voices front and center in Ballet West’s 6th Choreographic Festival, set for SLC June 5-8, and Kennedy Center, June 18-23

Ballet West’s 60th anniversary season has been simultaneously a celebration of its groundbreaking legacy in American dance and an exploration of fresh artistic possibilities going into the second quarter of the 21st century. 

Phil Chan, an internationally known choreographer whose organization Final Bow for Yellowface initially engaged the ballet world’s artistic gatekeepers to resist treating the art form’s most famous classic works as untouchable time capsules, summarized how the American ballet world has begun to transform and acknowledge the importance of greater Asian representation in choreography, composition and directorship. “The performing arts are constantly changing, evolving. In ballet, legs have gotten higher, tutus have gotten shorter. The art form itself has transformed from an aristocratic, elitist, Old World art form, into one that is vibrant and rich in a New World: diverse, democratic, and for everyone,” he said in an interview with Mixed Asian Media. “If we acknowledge and welcome ballet’s changes in some areas, why can’t we open our minds a little when it comes to how we represent “other” or minority racial groups? If we truly are committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, we have to realize that repeating repertory that is outdated or offensive when it comes to race is incongruent with these ideals.”

Set to premiere next week, Ballet West’s sixth edition of its Choreographic Festival, Asian Voices (June 5-8) features two world premieres as well as two recent works, all by Asian choreographers. Asian Voices is positioned to be the perfect bookend to the company’s 60th anniversary season. Ballet West will present the world premieres of American Ballet Theater soloist Zhong-Jing Fang’s Somewhere in Time, with a commissioned score by Korean-Canadian composer Deanna H. Choi, and Caili Quan’s Play on Impulse. There also will be the Ballet West premiere of Phil Chan’s Amber Waves and Edwaard Liang’s Seasons, featuring the guest company performance of BalletMet from Columbus, Ohio. 

Ballet West will also return to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. for its second visit this season, to be part of 10,000 Dreams: A Celebration of Asian Choreography Festival and Gala (June 18 – 23). Chan and Ballet West collaborated to orchestrate the festival in the nation’s capital, where the company will perform along with The Washington Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Singapore Ballet, Goh Ballet, Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company, Houston Ballet and dancers from the National Ballet of China.

Salt Lake City performances will be at the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts in downtown Salt Lake City. For tickets and more information, see the Ballet West website.

The Utah Review interviewed all four choreographers, along with composer and sound designer Deanna Choi.

Phil Chan. Photo credit: Eli Schmidt.


In an interview with The Utah Review, Chan, who graduated from Carleton College in Minnesota in 2006, recalled how the outcome of a 2017 meeting with Peter Martins, then New York City Ballet’s artistic director, inspired him and colleague Georgina “Gina” Pazcoguin to found Final Bow for Yellowface. Even prior to this meeting, Chan had been deeply concerned about other New York City Ballet productions’ portrayals of Asian characters. One was a loosely based adaptation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, in which a Chinese servant, in stereotyped character and costume, was shoved to fall on the floor, drawing laughter from the audience.    

In 2017, Martins asked Chan to a meeting to discuss the problematic portrayal of the Chinese dance number (Tea) in the second act of George Balanchine’s classic version of The Nutcracker. “Martins was between a rock and a hard place,” Chan recalled, adding that while many were insisting that the company not change the original masterpiece, Martins realized that he could no longer ignore the problems of Eurocentric representation in the work.   

Chan said that the discussion covered a lot of ground not just about the history of ballet’s evolutionary migration across Europe and then to the U.S. but also about Asian portrayals in American media and pop culture, as well as the painful history of laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) and the Japanese-American incarceration camps during World War II. Chan was surprised when Martins agreed to make changes in The Nutcracker, but Chan also realized that this inflection point should not be treated as an isolated moment. He reiterated a point that he made in a Dance Data Project interview earlier this year: “I like to describe my work as the opposite of cancel culture; I am not advocating for us to no longer perform problematic works, I am pushing for our field to find creative ways to reimagine them.”

From there, the effects quickly reverberated across the ballet landscape in the U.S. Ballet West was among the first companies to sign the pledge to Final Bow to Yellowface, joining Washington Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem and Pacific Northwest Ballet. Today, scores more have signed the pledge. While the pandemic slowed efforts, Chan coordinated a virtual choreographic festival for Asian American Pacific Island Heritage Month during May 2021, featuring an AAPI dance artist daily. As the cost was essentially zero, Chan explained that it led to six ballet commissions, including five for Asian women artists. Now, it has expanded to large-scale productions such as this year’s Ballet West Choreographic Festival and the forthcoming 10,000 Dreams dance festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. 

Chan has been at the forefront in numerous examples. Last year, Chan directed a new version of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly for Boston Lyric Opera, which moved the setting from early 20th century Nagasaki to San Francisco during World War II before Pearl Harbor and the decision to incarcerate Japanese Americans in camps. Chan tapped choreographer Michael Sakamoto, whose family was incarcerated during the war, to set solos for Butterly as well as a traditional Japanese Bon Odori dance, which was set to the opera’s famous humming chorus. 

A work which will have its Utah premiere next week, Chan’s Amber Waves was first performed at the Oakland Ballet’s Dancing Moons Festival in 2022. The work is set to selections of music by Chinese American composer Huang Ruo, which was commissioned by Min Kwon, as part of reinterpretations of America the Beautiful from 75 composers.

“It is a beautiful intimate solo piano piece, hopeful and idealistic but also bittersweet and sad, to emphasize that the image of America is not perfect but that there is still work to be done,” Chan said. He added it is a work about pushing out the ugliness that many have experienced. “I remember clearly how many Asians were scapegoated during the pandemic,” he recalled. Numerous researchers, who investigated the rhetoric during the period, noted social media posts associated with the COVID-19 pandemic illustrated graphically the still-pervasive degrading perceptions about Asian Americans as a ‘yellow peril.’ Cast as a duet, Amber Waves includes moments when both dancers are bathed in shimmering light but also emphasizing the juxtaposed realities of believing in the promises of the American Dream and experiencing the harsh disappointment of being denied the opportunity to be affirmed and accepted for one’s identity. 

Edwaard Liang.


Named as The Washington Ballet Company’s artistic director, Edwaard Liang, who also oversees BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio, is the first Asian American to lead a major ballet company in the U.S.

Born In Taipei and raised in northern California’s Marin County, Liang started ballet lessons at the age of five along with his sister. “I also studied horseback riding, piano and other dance but ballet stuck and became my passion,” he said, in an interview with The Utah Review. At 13, he was enrolled in the School of American Ballet and by the time he was 17, he joined the New York City Ballet.

Liang’s career accelerated from that point. When he was 17 (1993) he won a medal at the Prix de Lausanne International Ballet Competition, and five years later, he was promoted to soloist. In 2001, he joined the Tony-Award-winning Broadway cast of Fosse. By his mid-twenties, he had garnered an international reputation and by the time he reached his forties, he had created work for Bolshoi, Joffrey, Kirov, Shanghai and Singapore as well as for the company where he started professionally, along with Pacific Northwest Ballet, San Francisco Ballet and the place of his recent appointment as artistic director for The Washington Ballet. 

Two years ago, Adam Sklute, Ballet West’s artistic director invited Liang to bring BalletMet from Columbus, Ohio to dance alongside Ballet West in Salt Lake City as part of this year’s Asian Voices Festival. Liang acknowledged Sklute’s leadership for not just understanding but also taking action. “It is not just words but manifestation of true, sincere action to meet these objectives,” Liang added.

Grace Anne Powers and Alvin Tovstogray, Seasons, Edwaard Liang, BalletMet. Photo Credit: Jennifer Zmuda.

Liang said that the list of his mentors is “incredibly long,” including names such as Ann Reinking, Jerome Robbins, Stanley Williams, Christopher Wheeldon and Helgi Tomasson.

Just as no one would ever imagine asking western European artists about how they could make their art ‘more white,’ Liang said the proper emphasis should be on Asian artists creating work from their experiences of navigating and expressing their identities as they are defining their own sense of belonging in American society. “I think that representation is very powerful for our industry, and part of how dance is changing,” he said in an interview published earlier this year in the Washingtonian magazine. “And it absolutely impacts my craft and how I lead because who I am is a culmination of my experiences. Not just being genetically Chinese but how I was raised by two Chinese immigrant parents, my culture, history, and sense memory.”

Liang’s words resonate, when one considers the coinciding events of Ballet West’s Asian Voices choreographic festival and two current major exhibitions of Japanese-American artists at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. One exhibition Pictures of Belonging: Miki Hayakawa, Hisako Hibi, and Miné Okubo is a brilliant masterpiece on its merits, impressively commanding visitors to think anew about American modernism in 20th century. Or, that Chiura Obata’s work, who also was incarcerated in a camp during World War II, “and life comprise the epitome of resilience, an artistic meta-narrative of the immigrant’s faith in the American experiment that still remarkably supersedes generation after generation of ugly xenophobic and bigoted expressions and actions.” This is a point reiterated in the museum’s current Chiura Obata: Layer by Layer show. 

As The Utah Review previously noted, in a 2007 essay, art historian ShiPu Wang wrote that the works of Asian-American artists “exude ‘transcendental beauty’ beyond cultural boundaries.” He added, “Their meaning and significance constantly shift and expand under different sociopolitical circumstances, and they do not remain incontrovertible objects or artifacts.” The explanation underscores the holistic artistic mission that Liang has echoed just as prominently as his colleague, Phil Chan, which is evident in their works. Likewise, this point is reinforced in the forthcoming world premieres at Asian Voices by Caili Quan and Zhong-Jing Fang.

“I am very excited about the future in dance and the idea of shining a light into something that was closed to many for far too long of a time,“ Liang explained. “It is very much a part of my job to foster, mentor, inspire and promote the next generation of artists. We are all in the biggest relay race and I can think that my job will be done when it is time to pass the baton along so a new generation can push the ballet world even further.”

Liang’s Seasons, which will be performed by BalletMet artists, was inspired by Max Richter’s recomposed and new interpretation of the set of four Baroque violin concerti (Four Seasons) by Antonio Vivaldi. Describing it as a “brilliant score,” which is filled with ambient electronically reconfigured fragments, along with looped and phased samples of some of Vivaldi’s original music, Liang said that the work’s provenance epitomizes a frequently repeated line from Balanchine’s Law: “Suddenly I see the music; suddenly I hear the movements of the dancers,” which Balanchine quoted about his choreography, when a feature about the choreographer was published in a December 1963 issue of Show magazine. Liang added that Seasons offers so many opportunities to use lighting and shadows, and props such as bare trees, to integrate music, theater, and sculpture into the holistic presentations of dance, as set to Richter’s score.  

Caili Quan, Ballet West studio. Photo Credit: Beau Pearson.


Raised in Guam, Caili Quan’s heritage is Chamorro Filipino. “Guam is one of the reasons I make dances,” she said in an interview with Dance Data Project. “I love sharing the culture I grew up in. Also, as a choreographer, you make what you know and I know Guam. There are so many parts of the culture that naturally seep into all of my work, no matter what the work ends up being about, because it is an integral part of who I am.” Later, she would create Love Letter, a dance piece dedicated to her homeland and heritage, along with a short documentary Mahålang, which was shown at the Hawai’i International Film Festival, CAAMFest and the Dance on Camera Festival at Lincoln Center.

In an interview with The Utah Review, Quan talked about what it was like growing up on an island nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and taking dance lessons. She started lessons at seven and by the time she reached her teens, she knew that she wanted to pursue dance as a career. Quan was attracted to all sorts of dance. At one point, she thought it would be great to start as a backup dancer for pop star Janet Jackson.

At 16, she traveled more than 7,900 miles, landing in New York City. “When I was growing up, learning about Lauren Anderson, I knew then that I wanted to become a dancer. She was my hero, my role model and she was the closest to seeing myself in dance,” Quan explained. Anderson became the first African American principal dancer at Houston Ballet in 1990, 25 years before Misty Copeland became a household name when she was promoted to principal at American Ballet Theatre. 

Eventually, Quan would land with BalletX, where she danced for eight years and had her first opportunities to set work on the company members. In her interview with Dance Data Project, she credited Christine Cox, BalletX’s artistic and executive director, for allowing her to explore developing her voice as a choreographer.  “She immediately gave me opportunities to make dances for pop-up performances along with BalletX’s annual galas,” Quan told Dance Data Project. “Creating with close friends whom I danced with for years, was such a fortunate way to learn the process. Also, BalletX at the time would make six to nine new works a season, so I was exposed to many creative processes and styles of movement as a dancer.”

“At BalletX, I saw how progress could be made to move the ballet world in the right direction,” Quan told The Utah Review. “And, I could test the waters by creating dances on close friends who I knew so well and I could do so in a comfortable environment.”

When Quan came to Ballet West in January to begin setting Play on Impulse, she was excited about the opportunity to find her place among dancers with whom she had never worked before and to mutually cultivate the ways to speak the same movement language in the studio. “For the first day and a half, the full company was in the room and I had never workshopped with that many dancers at one time,” she said. “But, being the stranger in the room didn’t matter because they were super welcoming from the start and with that you can feel what the culture of the company is.” Initially, she envisioned Play on Impulse, with 12 dancers but then decided to expand it considerably.

Caili Quan, Ballet West studio. Photo Credit: Beau Pearson.

“The work is inspired by the freewheeling experiences of youth; that sense of abandon and freedom we have as teenagers,” Quan explained. “It is that time of an emotionally driven, hyper-impulsive, hormonally-charged middle ground between childhood and adulthood. Not knowing or fearing danger, everything is up for exploration and taking risks that adults would not take because they no longer have the same youthful impulse.” With a nostalgic bent toward eclectic pop music favorites from the Seventies through the Nineties, Quan’s musical selections for Play on Impulse include Bjork, The Cardigans, Deee-Lite, Elvis Presley and The Velvet Underground. Hence, the sections of the work match up to the music: Human Behavior, After Hours, Love Fool, Groove Is in the Heart and Blue Moon

“The music reminds me when I was a 12-year-old on Guam and how it carried me through times when I felt subpar, “ she explained. “Deee-Lite’s Groove Is in the Heart incepted my mind and now I can hear it play whenever I am buying lettuce at the supermarket.” Choreographers have deep and broad relationships with the music that becomes the canvas for their dance compositions. “Music is crazy that way,” Quan added. “Music is attached to so many memories, and I can jump back, remembering the smell of Filipino Adobo just like when I was five years old, or the environment, the clothes I was wearing or the carpet where I sat on at home.” 

Quan said that she is grateful for how willing and open the Ballet West artistic family has been. As she explained in her earlier interview with Dance Data Project, “Experiencing the perspective from the front of the studio widens your scope and teaches you a different set of skills. Ask friends that you trust and start creating. There’s no downside. For the female dancers who want to transition into more creative leadership roles, trust yourself and your gut. Don’t back down when someone challenges your views, but be open to the conversation. And ask for advice from other female creatives and leaders in the field. They want you to succeed too.” Her choreographic portfolio has expanded significantly. In addition to BalletX, she has set work for The Juilliard School, Nashville Ballet, Oakland Ballet Company, Owen/Cox Dance Group, Columbia Ballet Collaborative and Ballet Academy East. She served as an Artistic Partnership Initiative Fellow and a Toulmin Creator at The Center for Ballet and the Arts at NYU. 

Zhong-Jing Fang, Ballet West studio. Photo Credit: Beau Pearson.


While Zhong-Jing Fang‘s formative development in ballet occurred in her home city of Shanghai, where she trained at the Shanghai Ballet School and in the performing arts college of Shanghai Drama University, the most consequential event in her career came in 2000, when she took the grand prize at the Prix de Lausanne. The honor cemented her international career, which led her to the American Ballet Theater. But, as she recalled in a previously published interview elsewhere, Fang said that Lausanne was a transformative event for her inner resolve as an artist. “Before arriving in Switzerland, I had an appendicitis infection and almost couldn’t attend the competition yet, I persevered and found my inner strength within to win the competition,” she explained. “Lausanne allowed me to face my own challenges and allowed me to open my eyes and understand the importance of following my heart and destiny.” Twenty years after winning the grand prize, she returned to Lausanne as a jury member.

Fang became a member of the main ABT  company in 2004, eventually working with many of the best known ballet choreographers and she has performed in every full-length ballet in the company repertoire. After an injury affecting her posterior tibial tendon, which could have ended her career as a dancer, she recovered fully and became a soloist with ABT.

Fang’s first forays into choreography were in 2011 with ABT and soon after garnered her first commission (Final Frame) from the New York Theatre Ballet. which she collaborated with Steven Melendez, which was commissioned by New York Theatre Ballet. Her work Le Femme has also been seen at the Guggenheim Museum’s Works & Process series. Later collaborations would connect her to the Counter Point project in Brooklyn, where she joined visual artist Audra Wolowiec to create Surround.  In 2019, she joined the 92nd Street Y for their Dig Dance Project as an upcoming choreographer, as well as joining the ABT Incubator Project where she create An Observation of the Dress Code.

In observing the first run-through of her newest work, Somewhere in Time, in the Ballet West studio, the work-in-progress already seemed to flow smoothly across all three sections. The ensemble chemistry was just as evident, and Fang frequently said, ‘good’ throughout the initial run of the entire work. The work includes an original sound design score commissioned from Deanna H. Choi. 

With a good dose of cinematic overtones, Fang’s work reflects upon the cycle of time and relationships through the past, present and the anticipated future. She is inspired in part by the 1980 romantic fantasy movie Somewhere in Time, in which a playwright staying at a resort is so entranced by a photo of an actress from 1912 that he uses hypnosis to manifest himself back in time so he can fall in love with her.

Fang’s choreography leverages numerous elements of ballet theater that nicely align with Choi’s score to accentuate the visuals. The opening section features a solo goddess with an exceptionally long cape that symbolizes the burden of sustaining heritage, while the remainder of the cast as couples attempt to catch the streaming cape (or, as Fang described it in an interview with The Utah Review, wedding guests who hope to catch the bouquet from the bride). The second movement, set like a busy urban street, hews closely to the film’s broader story of competitive love interests and relationships, as couples stroll along a promenade while partners switch frequently. And, then in the final section, which does not have the prominent percussive background clock-like beats of the first two sections, a lush, pulsating, romantic string orchestra sound brings the time cycle through its revolution, while signifying yet another relationship dynamic: forbidden love. Working and collaborating remotely, Fang and Choi continued to tweak the music score, with the final version set just two days before the first run-through rehearsal of Somewhere in Time.   

Ballet West dancers with Zhong-Jing Fang, Ballet West studio. Photo Credit: Beau Pearson.

Nevertheless, despite the work’s abstract bearings in various instances, the dancers have handily translated Fang’s visual cues, such as birds of paradise or of movement akin to crabs crawling along the shoreline. Or, in the second section, the soloist desires to be in a committed relationship but is relegated to watching others in the world who appear to be happily partnered or are eager to discover fresh encounters. “The first time I saw the movie, I was fascinated by the story of someone who has to travel through time to meet the person he believed that he had loved instantly,” Fang added. Certainly, the ideal of a love being so powerfully sustainable that it could subvert the inexorable march of time is tempting but achieving it also is fraught with complications. 

Fang turns to other cultural artifacts, such as the fashion stylings of the late Alexander McQueen, which inflects the second section with the essence of a fashion show so that the movement never seems to relax from its expressed emotional tension. As with Quan, Fang also expanded the number of Ballet West dancers she initially envisioned for the work, going from 10 to 18. 

Mindful of her own journey as a dancer and choreographer, Fang added that she is thrilled that Asian women are steadily becoming more visible on the American ballet stage as well as creating work that opens new avenues for expanding the repertoire.   

Deanna H. Choi. Photo Credit: David Cooper.


Choi, who teaches sound design at National Theatre School of Canada, is a Korean-Canadian composer based in Toronto. In addition to composing music for film, television, dance and multimedia formats, she has collaborated with artists from all genres and disciplines through her company Split Brain Sound. She has designed soundscapes and audio systems for live theater, concerts, and installations, having worked on more than 100 shows across Canada and the U.S.

During her student days, Choi weighed two career options, one as a classically trained violinist and the other while pursuing behavioral neuroscience studies with a theater minor at Queen’s University in Canada. Along with journal publication credits in the sciences, she has delivered a TEDxTalk about music’s effects on the brain.

In an interview with The Utah Review, Choi explained how she eventually figured out a way to balance both interests in her work. “I also caught the music theater bug, after being asked to play in the student orchestra for the musical Sweeney Todd,” she recalled. “A friend of mine was interested in setting the lyrics from Shakespeare’s As You Like It and I started composing music and sound designs in the lab, which I really enjoyed. I told my parents that I would go to the big city [Toronto] and wait tables or become a Starbucks barista while I figured out what to do and that I would return if I didn’t get a professional offer from a theater company by the end of the year.”

Things evidently worked out in her favor. What really paid off for Choi was the collaboration bug, as evidenced in how quickly she and Fang formed an artistic partnership where both equally trusted and respected each other’s perspectives and philosophy about what was needed for Somewhere in Time. Fang had reached out to Choi and both had not seen much of either’s work, save for YouTube videos on their websites. “We were starting fresh and it felt like a first date, as we talked about our creative styles and how we might approach this,” Choi said. She explained that when Chan had forged virtual connections for Asian artists and choreographers during the pandemic through his organization, it made it possible for the type of collaboration she and Fang established.

Fang and Choi quickly discovered they shared love and respect for McQueen’s work, including perhaps the most provocative career show highlighting his creativity, Savage Beauty, which was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011.

Choi said the first section of Fang’s choreography reclaims the sensations of intrigue and mystery about unfamiliar worlds without needing to quote specifically a culture or necessarily an idiosyncratic artifact. “The combination of abstract acoustic and electronic music and the choreography does not lend itself to any particular community but instead to highlight growth and development in individual expression,” she explained. 

Likewise, the second movement has given Choi liberty to build off film noir elements in a unique way while the third movement has opened up virtuosic possibilities to imagine birds of paradise along with ideas about the future, “by exploring, reclaiming and reconfiguring familiar anachronisms.” The Eurocentric traditions of opera and ballet have always appropriated — or, more pointedly, stolen — from other cultures and have framed them with stereotyped, denigrating Orientalist interpretations. Works such as Fang’s Somewhere in Time demonstrate how Asian artists effectively draw on techniques that have been practiced for centuries while they also incorporate their own interconnected sense of identity, to forge their creative futures that are innovative and resonate with the foundations of their own heritage. 

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