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Staging Classical Works for Today’s Audiences
Episode 126

Staging Classical Works for Today’s Audiences

CI to Eye with Phil Chan

This episode is hosted by Dan Titmuss.

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In This Episode

What do we do when “the classics”—those canonical treasures that embody the rich traditions of our genres—start to feel outdated for today’s audiences, or even at odds with our missions?

In today’s episode, we take a close look at celebrated works from the classical Western canon that include harmful portrayals of non-Western cultures, and hear how one artist is taking action to prune and preserve the art he loves.

CI to Eye Interview with Phil Chan

Artist and advocate Phil Chan shares how performing arts organizations can approach works from the classical Western canon with enhanced cultural sensitivity and authenticity. He offers tips and real-world examples for updating outdated representations of non-Western cultures while maintaining the integrity of these works.

Karen McConarty: Like practicing the violin or tenderly restoring a painting, we nurture what we love. And Capacity Interactive’s Boot Camp is the best way to nurture our collective love for the arts. Created by and for arts marketers and leaders, a ticket to Boot Camp is more than a ticket to the leading conference for our industry. It’s a ticket to sold out shows. A ticket to connecting with new bright-eyed audiences. A ticket to keeping instruments in tune and concert halls reverberating for generations. Join us at the Times Center in New York City, October 24th and 25th, for the only event where arts, marketing, connection and innovation collide. Save your spot at See you there!

Dan Titmuss: Hi everyone. Dan here. A core part of introducing new audiences to our art forms is showing them both the exciting new works as well as “the classics”: those canonical treasures that embody the rich traditions of your genre. But what do we do when the classics start to feel outdated for today’s audiences, or even at odds with our missions? In the dance world, some of our most celebrated story ballets like The Nutcracker and La Bayadère can include harmful portrayals of non-Western cultures—portrayals that perpetuate misconceptions and reinforce cultural biases. Today’s audiences are not just taking notice, they’re taking action. Earlier this year, I met up with Phil Chan, president of the Gold Standard Arts Foundation and co-founder of the Final Bow for Yellowface campaign. Since 2017, he’s advised countless performing arts groups on how to maintain the integrity of works from the classical Western canon while updating outdated representations of Asians. Phil was such a fun and generous guest who showed us what’s possible when performing arts organizations approach classical works with cultural sensitivity and authenticity. No matter your organization’s genre, we all strive to program works that reflect the rich tapestry of human experiences. Today’s episode continues an important conversation about honoring the traditions of our art forms while ensuring they remain well-loved for generations to come. We’ve got a lot to discuss, so let’s dive in, shall we?

We have a real treat for you today. I’m here with Phil Chan, a dancer, choreographer, writer, and fierce champion for Asian voices in dance and beyond. Phil, welcome to CI to Eye!

Phil Chan: Thank you for having me.

Dan Titmuss: So let’s jump right in. Do you remember the exact moment that you fell in love with dance? What drew you to pursue a career as an artist?

Phil Chan: Yeah, my mother was actually flying back to Hong Kong where we were living, and she was stuck in Tokyo overnight. I think her flight was canceled. And she was sitting next to a dancer from the Hong Kong Ballet, and they ended up talking and catching the next flight out of Tokyo together and becoming friends. So growing up, my mom used to take me to the ballet and I was a kid with a lot of energy and bouncing off the walls, and Don said, well, why don’t you try him out with ballet? And that sort of stuck. But I think that I really fell in love with dance after seeing the movie Strictly Ballroom. And there’s a scene where the main character is sort of in the dance studio at night dancing by himself, and there was something about that scene where I was like, wow, I really identify with being able to express something that we just don’t have the words for. And I really related to that. So really, really grateful for dance and the opportunity to share that passion with other people.

Dan Titmuss: Amazing. At what point did you start to question choreographic depictions of Asian culture? Were there moments early in your dance training, or certain performances that you attended, that raised alarm bells?

Phil Chan: Yeah, I mean, of course I grew up with The Nutcracker, and as a young dancer, you’re just sort of given what people put in front of you and you look around and everybody else was doing Chinese in a sort of caricatured way. So if everyone else is doing it, how can it possibly be wrong or bad? I remember going to see a production of Alexei Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty. I think it was around 2015 at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, and I’m a huge dance history nerd. So the fact that we could go and see this production that was really trying to recreate sort of the old style and the old sets, it was just stepping into a time capsule and going back in time. And so I was thoroughly enjoying myself. And then in the third act, these sort of porcelain prince and princess characters come out and with the sort of rice patty hats and this sort of stereotyped caricature bowing and shuffling, and I just remember thinking like, oh, we are recreating the past, but also recreating these very old, antiquated ways of depicting Asian people.

And it just didn’t feel right to me. I remember having a conversation with Alexei about that production at that time, and I wasn’t really an advocate, I was just an audience member who happened to know him personally. And so I didn’t quite have the vocabulary to really articulate why it bothered me so much. It really wasn’t until I had a conversation with Peter Martins, who was the artistic director of New York City Ballet at the time. My very good friend, Georgina Pazcoguin, was a soloist with New York City Ballet and also in one of their diversity committees. And in that committee, they were talking about the different issues that the company had. And one of the issues that came up was how the different nationalities in Balanchine’s Nutcracker were depicted in the second act. And Gina, she said, well, I’m in the Company. I’d rather have an outsider talk to you about this. And also somebody who is Chinese who can speak to the lived experience of being in the minority as a Chinese person and what that experience and that impact on this work would be. Gina basically just called me and was like, Hey, I’m in between rehearsals. I can’t really talk, but I gave Peter Martins your number, he might be calling you about Nutcracker. Got to go. Bye. And that was all the context I got.

Dan Titmuss: Just for dance novices on the podcast, can you explain the Chinese dance in The Nutcracker?

Phil Chan: Sure. So in The Nutcracker, it’s about a little girl, either Marie or Clara depending on what production it is. But in the second act, she’s transported into the Kingdom of Sweets and you get sort of an it’s-a-small-world tour of all these different cultures represented through confection. So there’s Spanish chocolate, there’s Chinese tea, there’s Arabian coffee, and so some of the cultures are represented with a lot of character. They were researched. So Petipa, Marius Petipa, who was the choreographer, was a principal dancer in Spain and working in Russian at the time. So the Russian dance, the Spanish dance… pretty authentic and positive representations of these cultures, whereas the Arabian dance, the Chinese dance, were really just sort of treated as these fantasy exotic dances that really weren’t based in anything real culturally, but were based on the little pieces of information that Europeans had at the time of these cultures.

So, often highly caricatured, often in yellowface, which is a performer exaggerating their features to look more Asian. Sometimes yellowface manifests in physicalizations like shuffling and bowing, even making fun of people’s accents. So that’s generally how these depictions were of Chinese and Arabian. So Peter eventually called me, and this was 2017, and so we talked, it was probably about half an hour or so in his office, and we talked about the history of how Asians have been represented on our stages in theater and opera and dance, then later in television and film, and then also what sort of contributions Asian folks have had in terms of their depictions in ballet, specifically the history of The Nutcracker, and just realizing that we have a lot of these outside exotic portrayals of Asians, but none by Asian people.

Dan Titmuss: So you start having these conversations with New York City Ballet on re-imagining their Chinese dance for The Nutcracker. Was that the impetus for Final Bow for Yellowface?

Phil Chan: So yeah, New York City Ballet, the Company was founded by George Balanchine, who was the original choreographer of this production of The Nutcracker. It’s probably the most widely performed production of The Nutcracker in the United States. It’s a really big cultural force, and so if Peter’s willing to change, why not every company in America? Why not every company in the world? And so we bought for I think $10 at the time, and we put up a simple pledge that says essentially, I love ballet, and because of that I’m not going to do yellowface on our stages anymore.

Dan Titmuss: I love that wording as well. I love ballet, so I will not do this. It’s a preservation of the art form, is to evolve with the times.

Phil Chan: And I think it really comes from a place of love and exactly what you say is we are trying to practice inclusive advocacy, so folks that are listening who—they want to change the world, or they have an issue that they want to change. Instead of going to somebody and saying, Hey, you need to change, put yourself into the problem with the people you’re trying to convince and say, Hey, we both love this thing and we together need to change it. And I think that’s a big part of our success at this point. Pretty much every major American ballet company has signed our pledge. A lot of the big European companies have signed on in the last couple of years. Four out of five of the biggest companies in the UK have signed on to this conversation. So it’s really had this beautiful ripple effect. The Paris Opera a couple of years ago did their first diversity report ever. This is our oldest performing arts organization in the West founded by Louis XIV, and in their diversity report, they cited Gina and I by name as a contributing factor to their decision to no longer do blackface or yellowface in both the opera and the ballet. So it’s really had this beautiful ripple effect of just asking our art forms to see each other with more nuance and more empathy. So I’m very proud of that.

Dan Titmuss: Yeah, it almost feels like there is a tipping point where so many people have signed on. Did you feel that at all, or…?

Phil Chan: Yeah, I think I’ve been able to see that progress in hindsight. What we found with Final Bow for Yellowface, though, was that this wasn’t actually the start of the conversation. What we did with Final Bow for Yellowface was really consolidate a lot of these conversations that were already happening so that we could actually say, Hey, we all want to do better. We all want more Asian students, Asian parents to get involved, Asian people to buy tickets and join our board, and because of that, we need to do better. So it was a way to just be that gathering of this conversation.

Dan Titmuss: Yeah. And did you meet any resistance from audience members when it came to adapting and changing some of the choreography?

Phil Chan: Yeah, I think we got a lot of resistance at first. Change is hard for a lot of people. There’s a feeling that if you change something, you lose something. But I think for us it was, well, what are we actually losing? Which is offensive caricatures of Asian people. And the whole point of our campaign was not to just cancel anything. In fact, I think our campaign is really the antithesis of cancel culture, right? Cancel culture would be saying, well, this is racist and you can’t do The Nutcracker anymore. We’re not canceling The Nutcracker. We’re saying, Hey, The Nutcracker could be better. Let’s keep the choreography, but let’s find better costuming, better choices to make so that it doesn’t have that negative impact on people. So it’s about keeping our heritage alive as dancers, but also being respectful to Asian people and culture.

Dan Titmuss: So now you’re the president of Gold Standard Arts Foundation. Tell us more about that work.

Phil Chan: So the sort of evolution of this conversation and where we are at now is looking at these ballet companies and saying, wow, we have so many depictions of Asian culture and Asian people, Asian characters in our repertory—The Miraculous Mandarin, Le Corsaire, La Bayadère—all these sort of stories and characters that take place in Asia, but how many Asian artists actually work in these companies? How many Asian choreographers have ever been hired to make work on their own terms? So getting companies to not just stop doing yellowface, but to hire Asian artists as well. That was really the impetus for this next step of the conversation, which was the formation of the Gold Standard Arts Foundation. We realized that we needed much more infrastructure in place than just two people in their spare time doing advocacy on a website. But I think the real tipping point for us was the horrific shooting in Atlanta a couple years ago that claimed the lives of eight people, six of them who were Asian women.

And it just felt like in the weeks after that, the entire dance community were coming to me and Gina and saying, okay, what’s the action item? What’s the hashtag? What do we do? How do we make this better? How do we fix this? We were like, we’re just two people on a website. What do you mean? What are we supposed to do with it? We were dealing with our own anger and frustration and grief and responding to this, but then we looked around and realized, oh, we are the Asians in the room, and we weren’t equipped to serve that. And so we started reaching out to other Asian-American leaders to sort of form this group, and they then became sort of our board and our artistic advisory board of the Gold Standard Arts Foundation to really be a service organization for Asian creatives in dance.

Dan Titmuss: Yeah. That’s a lot of pressure to be, as you said, “the Asians in the room.” Was that a lot of emotional labor?

Phil Chan: Yeah, absolutely. It’s exhausting. Even my own work as a scholar, as a historian, looking through hundreds of years of racist depictions of Asians… I’ve done a couple of research fellowships. I was lucky enough to go to Paris this last April and study with the French National Art History Institute. So going through the Paris Opera archives every day and just looking at stacks and stacks of these orientalist depictions, set designs, costumes, librettos of these sort of fantasy Asian people. And I just remember leaving the library at the end of the day and thinking like, God, I’m just, the weight of it is so exhausting.

Dan Titmuss: It sounds exhausting.

Phil Chan: And then paired with, you know, then open the newspaper and you see, oh, another Asian woman’s been shoved onto the subway or followed home and stalked home and stabbed to death in her apartment. And it’s just heartbreaking. But this is our little way of pushing back in our little corner of the world and just hoping that it gets bigger and it has legs and just seeing the good work that’s happening in Hollywood and film and TV and theater and opera. There are parallel conversations happening in a lot of our art forms, and I think a lot of us who are in the arts are realizing that if we have better portrayals of Asian people in our art, then maybe we’ll be treated better in society as well.

Dan Titmuss: Yeah, this work definitely expands beyond the ballet world. And you recently worked on the opera Madama Butterfly. Can you tell us what it was like delving into opera?

Phil Chan: Yeah. It was my first opera, so it was my directorial debut. It was my first big swing at an opera. So the similar parallel conversations that we were having around yellowface and Asian representation in ballet, the Asian Opera Alliance—AOA—was having around opera. I was approached by Boston Lyric Opera to look at Madama Butterfly as a work. They realized that they as an organization were not in a place where they could responsibly produce this work considering what was happening in the world around them. And so they instead devoted their resources to a year long conversation called The Butterfly Process, and we brought together folks from across the performing arts ecosystems—so directors, scholars, producers, singers, librettists, historians… to look at this work, examine it. What’s the problem with Madama Butterfly? What are the issues that it brings up, and what’s a way forward for this work?

So we looked at Orientalism as a genre, We looked at the archetypes of women, we looked at the history of the opera itself, to try and unpack: what exactly are we doing? What are we doing when we tell this geisha story over and over again? That process led to a re-imagining of Madama Butterfly, which I made my directorial debut in this past September. The challenge was how do we keep Puccini’s immortal music? This is what we all love. It’s just some of the most beautiful music in the Western canon. How do we keep the music alive, but not fall into the same tired Orientalist tropes that have plagued this opera, especially when Asian women were being treated the way they were treated the last couple of years during Covid. And so what emerged was a really beautiful reexamination of this work that supported the music, but also decentered the strictly European way of looking at the world, and instead changed the perspective, the center of the story, to being a story about Asian-Americans.

We set in in the 1940s. The first act took place in a Chinatown nightclub. The second and third act took place in a Japanese incarceration camp. The opera just received the “Best of 2023” in The Washington Post, in the Boston Globe, and in Broadway World. So really, really, really pleased with the reception of that. And I was also not alone in that process. I worked alongside an entire team of Asian and Asian-American creatives to reimagine this work. So there’s so many different ways of doing this work if you’re willing to be creative and to open your mind just a little bit.

Dan Titmuss: You’ve written about the difference between character and caricature. Can you share more about that perspective and where you personally draw the line between the two?

Phil Chan: Yeah, so I think character, if you think about maybe your favorite character in a movie or a book, it’s really somebody with nuance, somebody you can empathize with. Characters are three dimensional. They’re sort of in on the joke, whereas caricatures are often shorthand. They’re two dimensional, they’re flattened, they’re sort of the butt of the joke. So think about the difference between say your favorite movie character and say a caricature of a politician on, say, Saturday Night Live or something like that. That’s really just a shorthand. It’s meant to be just a joke or sort of not a fully fleshed out portrayal. And just finding that, looking around, there are so few accurate representations of Asian people or Asian characters with integrity and all of these sort of jokey chinky kind of depictions. As a young Asian dancer, that’s not really constructive in terms of getting people to come into this art form, to feel included, and to take it as part of their own, claim this art form as their own.

So this larger conversation we were trying to have was not just about some makeup and bowing and shuffling, but how do we make this art form from a Eurocentric art form into something that is multiracial, global, diverse, and that reflects the audience and the community that we are serving here in the 21st century. An example of that is, I was privileged enough to work with Peter Boal at Pacific Northwest Ballet, at PNB, and he was actually one of the leaders of this conversation before Final Bow for Yellowface. He was already chewing on this issue. And the challenge for Peter was, how do we keep this beloved Balanchine choreography, which has been handed down, which is considered a masterpiece, but remove the Asian caricature? And I remember one day he called me up and he said, Hey, Phil, promise you won’t laugh, but I have an idea for Chinese.

I said, okay, shoot. And he says, the dance, I’ll just describe the dance for you. So essentially there’s two women who come out and they’re pushing a box, and they sort of do this vaudeville bit, like, oh, what’s in the box? What’s in the box? And they open the box and out pops a Chinese man, and he’s usually dressed… he has the rice patty hat and the queue hairstyle and the fumanchu mustache and usually yellowface. And he sort of does these big jumps. And then he sort of jumps back in the box and the ladies wheel him off stage again. And Peter said, okay, so what if instead of this Chinese man in the box, what if it’s a Chinese cricket? And I said, Peter, that is brilliant. A cricket in Chinese culture is a symbol of good luck, of good fortune, of spring. It’s the perfect gift to give to a young lady who’s blossoming into womanhood. It’s something that all classes of people have enjoyed. And also it’s a musical creature. Balanchine dancers like to say they’re the most musical of dancers. And so it really fits with the choreography. It’s a lot of big jumps. And crickets live in a little box, so it’s literally a perfect complement to the dance, and it doesn’t feel clichéd. It’s one example of what that swing from caricature to character really looks like.

Dan Titmuss: The perfect evolution.

Phil Chan: Exactly. So that production is alive and well in Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet. So if anyone has a chance to check that out, it’s just such a lovely way to honor Balanchine’s choreography but also respect Chinese heritage and culture.

Dan Titmuss: So clever. You’ve consulted for a long list of ballet companies. How do you convince ballet purists that classic works should be updated?

Phil Chan: To the ballet purists, we’re actually keeping the dance heritage going forward in the future. We’re not canceling these works, right? We’re not saying don’t do them. We’re saying there’s a better way to do them. I have some skin in the game as well. I’m literally about to head off to Indiana where I’m working with Indiana University to stage a full-length production of La Bayadère. So for folks who don’t know, that’s sort of like the Aida of ballet. It takes place in an exotic India, and it’s about a temple dancer who’s in love with the most noble warrior in the land, but he’s betrothed to the princess. Again, this ballet comes from the 1870s, so really it’s pretty old and not really what we know of as accurately being India or Indian culture. So we’re staging a version of this. We’re going back and reconstructing that choreography from the 1870s, but we’re setting the ballet in sort of a 1920s Hollywood.

So again, preserving that dance history, making it accessible for a future generation, but also just avoiding the racial caricature. So to people who want to see La Bayadère done with turbans and saris, there’s so many video productions of it all over the internet at your local library. Enjoy the video. You can watch it over and over again in the comfort of your living room forever. But we are making art for living, diverse, 21st century audiences now. So that’s who we’re serving, and that’s what the art has to be, or else it just becomes like a quaint exercise. It’s like a Civil War reenactment where it doesn’t really mean anything.

Dan Titmuss: It becomes almost more irrelevant. Yeah.

Phil Chan: Yeah, yeah. It’s a relic of the past as opposed to something that is art for the present. So that’s really our approach.

Dan Titmuss: Do you think it’s important to have those old recordings that people can look back on?

Phil Chan: Absolutely. If we don’t know where we’ve been in the past, how do we know where we’re going in the future? How do you break the rules if you don’t know what the rules are? So I was a Jerome Robbins Fellow at the New York Public Library where I looked at about 200 Orientalist ballets from Louis XIV to today. So stories set in exotic India or China or the Middle East, and really trying to ask myself: beyond the costuming, what was the appeal of setting a story someplace not Europe, someplace unfamiliar, someplace exotic, “over there”? And my thesis essentially was that Orientalism probably served as the greatest driver of creativity and innovation in the Western performing arts, because when you don’t know what those people over there look like, what their customs are, what their music sounds like, what their costumes look like, you get to make it up. And so you get to break all of the rules that we do things because it’s not about us, it’s about someone else over there. And so you’re able to explore the boundaries of human psychology, imagine fantastic buildings that wouldn’t be possible because we don’t have buildings like that in France or in England, but who knows what those other cultures have.

Dan Titmuss: It reminds me of sci-fi and fantasy, how that works as well.

Phil Chan: Absolutely. Absolutely. And so again, from those fantasies, then you can innovate. So one example is exotic rhythms, like a five four rhythm. So it’s like beats of five. In Europe, we do the minuette, the polka, the waltz. Two four, three four, four four. Who knows what those exotic people over there, what their music sounds like? Well, let’s just add an extra beat. Let’s make it five four. And then nowadays, Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” right? That’s just music now. But you have to remember how radical that was. Stravinsky, all those different time signatures, that wouldn’t have been possible if we didn’t say, well, let’s imagine what a non-European way of doing music would sound like, even if it’s not authentic. And just that process of imagining gets you to expand what is possible in music. And the same goes for architecture, costume design, fashion, music, painting, all of it was really inspired by the rule breaking that was allowed in Orientalism. So you need to know what came before. You need to know that history. How do you move an art form forward if you don’t understand the past? So that’s really our approach as well, is to make sure that we have a keen sense of the history, but also use that to inform the future as a springboard for what’s next.

Dan Titmuss: Yeah, it’s a case of honesty and authenticity, being honest of where we’ve been and authentic going forwards.

Phil Chan: And I think also having integrity. I think we confuse authenticity with integrity. An example of that is, I was curating an exhibition at Drexel University about chinoiserie in fashion, and one of the pieces we were looking at was this dress from a French designer, and it had all these Chinese phoenixes as a motif on the dress. And if you saw the dress, you’d say, oh, that’s a dress with pretty birds on it. But as a Chinese person, you see them and you say, ah, it’s very imbalanced because the phoenix would never just appear without the dragon symbol. So you just wouldn’t put those symbols like that. So while no one would argue that it’s not an authentic Chinese phoenix, it doesn’t have integrity because the symbols aren’t being used in the right way. Or say another example is maybe using a sacred Native American headdress to get drunk and wear to a music festival. No one would say, oh, that’s not a Navajo headdress that’s authentic. But you lack integrity the way you’re using it. So I think sometimes we confuse authenticity and integrity. So really just making sure we understand the difference in those things as well when we’re talking about these issues and teasing them out.

Dan Titmuss: Do you think choreographic depictions of Asian culture can impact society’s broader treatment of Asian-Americans?

Phil Chan: Yeah, absolutely. And if we portray people as flat caricatures, how are we ever going to see them with nuance? And that goes for how we see Jewish people and antisemitism, how we see Black people and blackface. All of these things are connected. So if we have any hope of seeing our friends and neighbors and colleagues with more nuance, we have to look at what are we putting on stage? Art is a mirror to society, and so really thinking about those depictions and being more mindful, being more deliberate, and being more thoughtful I think only serves us better, especially when there’s so much division in our society right now. I think we need art with better representation so that we can really see each other with more nuance.

Dan Titmuss: So looking ahead for the next five or 10 years, what’s your hope for Asian representation?

Phil Chan: Well, I just hope that we have the opportunity to tell our stories with integrity, have the resources to do that. Honestly, we’re sort of in the stepping stone period where I feel like we’re making a special lane for Asian people just because we haven’t had that before, which is lovely. I’d love to not be considered as an Asian choreographer, but just as a choreographer, or not as an Asian writer, but just as a writer. But I do understand that we do need to have this stepping stone. It can sometimes feel tokenistic, but it’s also a necessary step to get to a place where we can just be, just make art where it’s not about our race or our gender or sexuality. We can just be seen as artists. But especially if you’re coming from an underrepresented group historically, sometimes a dedicated lane to get you there, to build that equity, is sometimes an important step.

So I think that’s where we are at now with not just Asian folks, but with a lot of other groups as well. We’re getting there. There’s growing pains with that. But I do see a very bright future where we will be more interwoven with the art that’s coming out in our communities that better reflect all of us, and we’re able to take our specific stories and make them universal and make other people share that. And why that’s important is I think that that allows us to see each other better, to see people… as opposed to highlighting our differences, maybe seeing where we’re similar. And I think that’s where we’re going to next. I’m very excited to be sort of riding this wave with so many other Asian folks too.

Dan Titmuss: If someone wants to learn more about the work you do, what resources should they check out first?

Phil Chan: Yeah, I mean, they can go to, which is the conversation about Final Bow for Yellowface. I’ve written a couple books about the issue: Final Bow for Yellowface, my first book. Banishing Orientalism was my second book. And I’m actually just finishing my third book, which is about my experience directing Madama Butterfly, and then of course, check out the Gold Standard Arts Foundation and all of the incredible work we’re doing to support the Asian community. And it’s not just for dancers and choreographers, it’s for any Asian artists who want to work in dance. So lighting designers, costume designers, librettists, set designers, filmmakers. We offer professional development opportunities to the community. So I just led a session on grant writing while Asian. Okay, so you’re applying for funds. How do you talk about your heritage when you’re applying for money? How do you talk to donors about what you’re trying to do, especially if they’re not Asian?

We’re gearing up to hopefully offer choreographic residencies and offer real financial supports, give grants to emerging Asian artists. We have a creative database of Asian artists, so when somebody says, Hey, I’m looking for a costume designer for my new production of Swan Lake, why not hire an Asian person? We’ve got a whole list. But I’m also really proud of a series of Asian dance festivals that we are producing called 10,000 Dreams. 10,000 is sort of the biggest number in a lot of Asian cultures. It just sort of means a lot, a lot, a lot. So 10,000 is the biggest number you could think of. But 10,000 Dreams, it started out as a virtual choreographic festival during Covid, where every day in the month of May, we profiled a different choreographer of Asian descent, and we had a digital film of their work. And that really came about when a lot of the artistic directors we were talking to said, okay, we’re not doing Yellowface anymore. We’d love to hire an Asian choreographer, but I can’t find a name. Nobody’s on my radar. Nobody’s ready yet. Nobody fits in with our company.

And so I said, okay, well, you can’t find any? I’m going to give you 31. I’m going to give you one every day. And I’m so pleased that so many of those artists that we profiled then have received commissions. And this was a couple years ago. And now that Covid is sort of on the retreat, we’re able to do these choreographic festivals live in person. So all of that is happening under this umbrella of the Gold Standard Arts Foundation. And so also, if you’re looking for collaborators, if you want to tell a story that happens in Asia, if you have characters that are Asian, reach out. Talk to us. Let’s collaborate. I think that’s the best way to tell stories with integrity is to practice that inclusion. So culture is meant to be shared. I think there’s a lot of fear of cultural appropriation, but at the end of the day, culture is meant to be shared, right? That’s how we understand each other and understand the world, and it’s—how do we do that with integrity? And the way to do that is by including people. Okay, you want to tell a Chinese story? Make sure I’m in the room with you. Let’s tell that story together. It’s going to be a better story if we do it together.

Dan Titmuss: Awesome. If you could broadcast one message to the executive directors, leadership teams, staff and boards of thousands of arts organizations, what would it be?

Phil Chan: Ooh. That’s tough. I feel like that’s already what I’m doing already with you, talking to you. Yeah. I think it’s, if you want to survive, if you don’t want us to be redundant, if you want us to stay relevant, if you want to make sure we’re hitting our ticket sales goals and our donation goals, and the enrollment in our schools are high, and we want there to be an interest and a love that is cultivated for these art forms for the future, we need to think much, much bigger. That involves seeing each other with more nuance. That involves bringing people in who we normally might not think belongs here, and we need to do that for the sake of keeping our art… to survive. Change is baked into our equation as well. I like to think of change in the performing arts as sort of like the difference between a museum and a garden.

I live right down the street from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Brooklyn Museum, right next to each other. The curator at the museum has a very different job than the curator at the botanic gardens. So the job of the static arts—so film, paintings, sculpture—those don’t change. You can’t change the Mona Lisa, right? It captures the zeitgeist of a moment. In order to preserve that, you need to make sure that the conditions are controlled, that it’s not too warm, not too humid, it’s out of the sun. You really have to protect the art. Whereas with the performing arts, it’s like a living organic thing. It’s like the trees. You need fertilizer, you need sun, you need rain, you need pollenators, you need bugs, you need pruning. And that’s very much how I approach the works of the performing arts. Change is part of the equation because we, as people, change. Our response to the art also changes, right? Old jokes don’t land the same way that they used to now. Something you might be okay with in the past now comes across as incredibly offensive or sexist or racist, whatever. But if there’s inherent value in it, if there’s something beautiful there, we need to help the art change to keep it alive. And so that’s, I guess, our job as creatives in this moment, especially when we’re looking to the past, to our canon, to our own history and legacy, is we need to be open to that change.

Dan Titmuss: Gosh, I love that metaphor. I really love that. What a fantastic point to end on. This has been such a great conversation. Phil Chan, thank you so much for joining us.

Phil Chan: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Dan Titmuss: Thank you for listening to CI to Eye. This episode was edited and produced by Karen McConarty and co-written by Karen McConarty and myself, Dan Titmuss. Stephanie Medina and Jess Berube are CI to Eye’s designers and video editors, and all work together to create CI’s digital content. Our music is by whoisuzo. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please take a moment to rate us or leave a review. A nice comment goes a long way in helping other people discover CI to Eye and hear from experts in the arts and beyond. If you didn’t enjoy today’s episode, pass it on to all of your enemies. Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube for regular content to help you market smarter. You can also sign up for our newsletter at so you never miss an update. And if you haven’t already, please click the subscribe button wherever you get your podcasts. Until next time, stay nerdy.

About Our Guests
Phil Chan
Phil Chan

Phil Chan is a co-founder of Final Bow for Yellowface and the President of the Gold Standard Arts Foundation. He is a graduate of Carleton College and an alumnus of the Ailey School. He has held fellowships with Dance/USA, Drexel University, Jacob’s Pillow, Harvard University, the Manhattan School of Music, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, NYU, and the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art in Paris. As a writer, he is the author of Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing between Intention and Impact and Banishing Orientalism, and has served as the Executive Editor for FLATT Magazine and contributed to Dance Europe Magazine, Dance Magazine, Dance Australia, and the Huffington Post, and currently serves on the Advisory Board of Dance Magazine. He served multiple years on the National Endowment for the Arts dance panel and the Jadin Wong Award panel presented by the Asian American Arts Alliance. He was a Benedict Distinguished Visiting Professor of Dance at Carleton College, and was named a Next 50 Arts Leader by the Kennedy Center. His recent projects include directing “Madama Butterfly” for Boston Lyric Opera (garnering “Best of 2023” in The Washington Post, Boston Globe, and Broadway World), and staging a newly reimagined “La Bayadere” for Indiana University. His dances are currently in the repertory at Ballet West and Oakland Ballet.

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