Georgina Pazcoguin: “Ballet isn’t just for European nobility anymore. Ballet is for everyone.”
Georgina Pazcoguin had little idea that when former New York City Ballet (NYCB) director Peter Martins recruited her into the prestigious company in 2002, her heritage would be so instrumental in her shaping her career. “I just wanted to keep growing as an artist,” says the ballerina, who is the first and only Asian American soloist with the company. “I didn’t embark on my career path thinking I would be so outspoken about my heritage, but when I got into NYCB, I realised I would have to define myself or be defined in a one-dimensional way based on a lens that viewed me as other, different.”
Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Pazcoguin is the daughter of a Filipino father and Italian mother. The mixed-race dancer is a rarity in the predominantly white industry: she is one of only about a dozen dancers of colour out of a total of nearly 100 in the company. Her promotion to soloist in 2013 makes her the first woman of colour (and first Filipina) to reach the rank in NYCB’s history. And while she didn't set out to be a spokesperson for her community, years of fighting to be accepted for her body shape, skin coloir and identity have made her more determined than ever to make representation happen—something she documents in her book Swan Dive.
In 2017, alongside former dancer and fellow Eurasian Phil Chan, Pazcoguin set up Final Bow for Yellowface, an online platform where Asian creatives and leaders educate the public about, and promote, diverse representation on stage. “Asian culture portrayed as caricature in art was informed by national political events like the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment camps and the Vietnam War,” she says. “When all we see on our screens and stages is flat, one-note depictions of Asian culture, it makes it easier for us to view the people of that culture as less than outside of our theatres. It will take a lot of accountability and acknowledgement that ballet has upheld a very specific white Eurocentric ideal and lens for 400 years. That’s why Phil and I are so passionate about helping push forward a new mindset in our shared corner of the arts world.”
One of the organisation’s key achievements was working with NYCB to remove racist stereotypes from the iconic “Tea variation” scene in their production of The Nutcracker. Non-Asian dancers no longer wear wigs and make-up that caricature Asian features, and the toned-down version respects and evokes Chinese culture without falling into offensive clichés. “Our audiences embody a global lens. What we see on stage and who we see representing on stage can reflect the vast diaspora of life that fills our audience,” Pazcoguin says. “Ballet isn’t just for European nobility anymore. Ballet is for everyone. I aim to level the playing field in my world alongside so many of my brothers and sisters acting for change. My experience has made me embrace my differences and spin them into gold the only way I know how. Ballet and dance are a universal language. It’s time to embrace inclusion to ensure new audiences can continue to enjoy and fall in love with ballet like I have.