Principal Dancer Xiao Nan Yu reflects on her career as she retires after 22 years with The National Ballet of Canada

Xiao Nan Yu rehearsing A Month in the Country. Photo by Bruce Zinger.

For every dancer there comes a time when they have to decide to step off the stage and retire and for principal dancer Xiao Nan Yu, this time has come after 22 years with The National Ballet of Canada.

Growing up and studying ballet in China (at the Shen Yang School of Dance and the Beijing Dance Academy in China) Yu came to Toronto to train at Canada’s National Ballet School. After graduation, Yu went on to join The National Ballet of Canada in 1996, where she rose through the ranks to second soloist, then the first soloist and was promoted to Principal Dancer in 2001.

And now at 41, Yu is taking her final curtain call, performing in the Merry Widow (19-23 June) as she bids farewell after a wonderfully long and esteemed career.

Xiao Nan Yu. Photo by Karolina Kuras.
Xiao Nan Yu. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

After 22 years with the company, what made you decide to retire now, at this particular moment?

For this profession, it’s never easy to say goodbye, but it’s such a physical challenge and a demanding profession and I didn’t want to leave the stage when my ability was below my personal standards. And I didn’t want my colleagues or my audience or most importantly for me to say, ‘Oh, do you remember when I could usually do that, or I remember the last time it was so easy, but this time it’s hard.’ I didn’t want any of that – I wanted to leave the stage at my highest point.

Looking back over your career, do you have a favourite moment that stands out for you?

I would say that the first memory is dancing with Rex Harrington in my premiere of Onegin – I played the role of Tatiana. During the curtain call, he laid a flower at my feet – that was a special moment because he was the biggest male star of the company, and I was in the corps and just coming up and was given this opportunity. The generosity and the care that he showed me has had a direct impact on my professional career and how I have looked after the younger generation and throughout my career, I have always remembered to be kind and help others.

What’s your secret to having a long career?   

Firstly, we have amazing physio, massage and medical support at The National Ballet of Canada. And secondly, I’ve been quite fortunate with my own body (from my parents) that I was naturally flexible, so I didn’t have to strain my ligaments too much. But I also look after myself really well, from eating to resting. You don’t stop; you work long days day, and when you go home you’ve got to know how to replenish your body, so you can carry on for the next day. 

Xiao Nan Yu in The Merry Widow. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Xiao Nan Yu in The Merry Widow. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

What challenges have you experienced throughout your career that has made you stronger or had an impact on you?

Definitely, injury is one thing. When you have an injury, you have to try to get better first, and then get back into shape and then prevent that from happening again. That’s pretty common in this profession. I would say, it has not necessarily made me stronger, but more so makes me accepting of who I am.

Also, ballet is a picky profession – you can be picked simply for your height, or your arches, your flexibility, how you can jump or simply eye colour can be a factor of people being cast into a role. Sometimes you think, “Oh I’m suited to this role.” Then you’re not what they’re looking for. And I think for us, as artists, that we need to be confident in ourselves, knowing not to take it personally.

In my career, I have come across times like that and then you have to tell yourself, “I’ve given a hundred per cent and this is not what they’re looking for and I can’t take it personally.” I then become accepting of myself and I would just move on to the next thing. But that’s what is tricky in this profession. So that’s why it’s not just the physical training, the strain on your body, but also mentally.

Xiao Nan Yu. Photo by Karolina Kuras.
Xiao Nan Yu. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

As a principal and a mother with two kids, which although more common nowadays, you were a bit of a trailblazer. What has been your experience as a mother and a principal dancer?  

Ever since I became a mother I found I had more strength in myself, mentally and physically. Before, I always found a lack of endurance and my stamina wasn’t really high and I always had doubt. That was one of my focusses – to train my stamina. And to be honest with you, after I had both of my girls, that was not an issue anymore.

You have so little time where you come to the work, you know you’ve got to give a hundred per cent, and when you step out of the company, you become a mother – you have two little ones that need you to pick them up, take them to parks. You can’t do ballet when you go home; you can’t watch the video; you can just lie down and not do anything. So then that, to me, it switched in my mind – it clicked – not just clicked in mind, but it was mental strength. I realised you can’t say, “Oh I’m tired today, I’m not going to do it.”

Time becomes so precious, even more so than before, because you have less time. So then that, to me, was very black and white – either you do it now or you don’t have another chance. So, in some way, once you become a mother, you just have this strength and you’ve got to deal with the two little ones that need you, and you just have to do it, don’t question, don’t pity yourself.

What have been your favourite roles in your career?

I love Tatiana in Onegin. I love the classical roles – I was classically trained, I grew up with these ballets – but don’t get me wrong, I also like the new ones, the neo-classical and the contemporary.    

Xiao Nan Yu in Onegin. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Xiao Nan Yu in Onegin. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

What will you miss from your stage career?

I will miss two things for sure. I will miss that when I’m on stage, the complete loneliness, just me and the music under the light – I’m not trying to prove anything, I’m not thinking of any corrections; it’s a complete sense of freedom when I’m on stage. And I’ll miss another thing, it’s the connection with the audience. I’ve had some very special performances and I can feel the connection between me and the audience, and that I can move them and have a response from them. And that’s what I’ll miss, for sure.

Have you got any little mementos that you are going to take home with you and treasure?

I have a pair of Birkenstocks – limited edition with faux fur on it, it’s got the jewels on it -that everybody makes fun of, but they are the most comfortable shoes and I’m always walking around the studio in them! So for sure they will come home with me! And then all the little notes that I have collected, and gift cards before each premiere that I will take home with me and frame and hang on my wall.

Are you nervous about what’s coming next for you and your career? 

No, I’m excited! When you get to a certain point in your career, you look back, you go, “Have I achieved this…have I achieved that…” and then you go, “Am I going to achieve more?” I’m sure all ballerinas will say, “Yes, we can.” As you become older you have this knowledge and the confidence and experience, but now you have to look at it, are you able to deliver? What about the younger ones? What do you want to do? Do you want to pass on this to them so they can carry on even more – some people still go on, those who are really good at it – but I feel for me this is a good time for me to move on to the opposite side of the studio.

Xiao Nan Yu. Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic.
Xiao Nan Yu. Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic.

What do you love the most about dancing?

I began not knowing ballet; my parents sent me to a ballet school because they said I loved to dance when there was music on. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into! You’re young, and when you’re young you just do it; you don’t really think about what your parents told you, or your teacher, your just train. It wasn’t until I was 13-14 years old that I realised, “Oh wait, I’m doing something; I’m performing.” And then I slowly realised that I was able to express my own feelings through my body, and that was something that almost felt unspoken – no words needed, like I don’t need to be outspoken, I could just be on stage and dance and then have my happiness, my sadness, my anger, my frustration – everything I can be, in one moment, in one body. And I thought that was like, “Wow! That’s pretty cool.”

And also because my training was so classical, I felt it gave me a sense of purity in this big world. I’m sure there’s some similarity in all kinds of arts to how we begin. With ballet, particularly for me, it has kept me innocent. I’m 41, I began when I was eight, and there’s something that has not changed – the simplicity, the purity of this art-form, and how I present this art-form has not changed. It has made things really simple and I’m glad I have not become somebody that I don’t recognise. I always remember how I began and now I still find the vulnerabilities of doing certain things is so pure.

Xiao Nan Yu and Guillaume Côté in The Merry Widow. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann.
Xiao Nan Yu and Guillaume Côté in The Merry Widow. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann.

How does it feel in the studio or class to be the experienced dancer in the room?

At first, it was a little weird because you look and you go, “Oh wait, you’re 18 or 19 – my older daughter is 14!” But then you see what they’re doing and you see what you’re doing – we’re doing exactly the same thing. But yet, my benefit is that I’ve got much more experience.

But then I’m looking and saying, “You and I are in the same studio, what can you learn from me and what can I learn from you?” And I often look at the younger ones that are newer to the companies and give them guidance, because we graduate from ballet school at such a young age, 18-19, and that’s the age when normal kids go to university – but they’ve still got four years to be a student before they step into the world. But for the ballet artist, we’re still young, and you’re really very vulnerable at that time. You really need guidance, to tell you or even just to help you, to give you pointers about what to do.

I remember being in their shoes and I thought I can really be an example for them. In the studio, I might not be as cool as them, but you sort of show them the way. When you’re 19 you join the company you think, I’m so cool, I know everything, but you have this fear, you’re nervous about being in a big company. That’s what I’m trying to do when I’m in the studio to look after, not like a mother, but just to give them an example.

Xiao Nan Yu with Artists of the Ballet in Giselle. Photo by David Cooper.
Xiao Nan Yu with Artists of the Ballet in Giselle. Photo by David Cooper.

What advice would you give to future ballet dancers who want to follow in your ballet steps? 

I would say, if you really love ballet, if you have the passion, don’t give up and really do it from your heart. Take every moment you have and when you’re on stage for instance, be truthful to the movements and to your heart.

We train every day – starting with 10 o’clock ballet class – and from time to time it can be boring because we do the same thing over and over. So, how do you keep that going? It’s the fire within your heart, the passion, that each time you can still find interest in the simplest movement and you can find the connection to it. And that’s what touches the audience when you go on stage. It could be so pure, just simply lifting your arm, and then you can touch the audience. And it’s that magical moment in ballet that I want to preserve.

What are you planning to do next?

I’ll still be involved in the ballet world because with 23 years I think I have the experience and knowledge to pass on to the younger generation. So I’ll definitely be involved in the ballet world.

And do you think that will be teaching, or do you have your own projects?

Teaching, coaching and some projects, yes they’re coming!   

Book tickets now for Xiao Nan Yu’s final performance!