A Conversation with Xiao Nan Yu
April 8, 2019
by Paula Citron
Chinese-born Xiao Nan Yu joined The National Ballet of Canada in 1996 and rose through the ranks with remarkable speed, being promoted to Principal Dancer in 2001. Now, after 22 years with the company, Yu, 41, is retiring. She is making her farewell performances Wednesday, June 19 and Saturday, June 22 at 7:30 pm in one of her greatest roles, that of Hanna Glawari in Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow (1975). The ballet is based on Franz Lehár’s beloved operetta.
What made you decide to retire?
As an art form, ballet is very particular. It makes demands on the body, like a sport, so dancers have to keep themselves in the very best shape physically and mentally. I wanted to leave while I still have the passion for dance. I wanted the audience to remember me at the height of my powers.
When did you tell Artistic Director Karen Kain about your decision and what was her reaction?
I told Karen three years ago and she was shocked. She wasn’t expecting it but she’s been very open. She told me she’d have no problem with me staying longer if I changed my mind.
Have there been doubts during these last three years?
I won’t deny that there have been days when I didn’t want to give up the stage. Next season’s repertoire would come out and there’d be a piece that I love or I’d be inspired by what’s new or what’s next. I’d do a body check and realize that I could still deliver a performance. The temptations to stay are never-ending but in the end, my decision hasn’t changed. It’s time for me to move on.
What was the reaction of your family?
My husband has always been there for me. He would never say that he thinks I should stop but he sees the physical toll of ballet. My daughters are disappointed because they love to watch me dance. My parents, who know how hard a dance career is, think I should have retired years ago.
Why did you decide on The Merry Widow for your farewell performance?
With Karen knowing three years in advance, we could talk things through. I knew I wanted to finish with a full-length but you can’t just pick a ballet. It has to fit in with the plans for the season, plus, you have to take into account when the work was last performed. The Merry Widow hadn’t been onstage for over 10 years so it was fresh for the repertoire.
What do you think is the appeal of The Merry Widow?
It’s a heart-warming ballet with a happy ending and it’s gorgeous to watch. It’s all about champagne, chandeliers and glamour. It’s a celebration that puts a smile on your face while being a good escape from reality. There’s nothing sad or negative about it. It’s also comical. There are four leads and lots of secondary roles, so the ballet is a great showcase for the company. You can tell that everyone onstage is having a good time. It’s a grand finish.
What do you like about the role of Hanna Glawari?
Hanna is a strong woman with a strong presence onstage. Her character also happens to fit in with where I am in my life right now. She is independent, confident, mature and she knows what she wants.
Because The Merry Widow is a fun-filled ballet, do you think people tend to downplay its challenges?
Yes. When I last danced it 10 years ago, the choreography still had me out of breath. I think that the demands of the ballet compare to any of the other classics.
What happens after the National Ballet?
First, I’m going to take time off to rest my mind and my body. I’ve been on the go for 22 years. I’ve also been talking to Mavis Staines at Canada’s National Ballet School. I’d love to teach and coach because I have the knowledge and the passion.
What has dance meant to you over all?
It is the sun to the earth. It is an art form that nourishes. It is food for the soul.
The Merry Widow is onstage June 19 – 23, 2019. Xiao Nan Yu will perform the lead role of Hanna Glawari on Wednesday, June 19 and Saturday, June 22 at 7:30 pm. The company will honour Ms. Yu at the Saturday evening performance.
Full casting will be announced shortly, all casting is subject to change.