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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Asian American Ballerina Georgina Pazcoguin Unexpectedly Makes History

Pazcoguin is the first AAPI soloist at the City Ballet to dance the role of Polyhymnia in the company's presentation of ‘Apollo.’ It almost didn't happen.

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Image for article titled Asian American Ballerina Georgina Pazcoguin Unexpectedly Makes History
Photo: Susan Stripling/Courtesy of Georgina Pazcoguin

Georgina Pazcoguin is no stranger to making history. She’s New York City Ballet’s first Asian American woman to be promoted to soloist. In her 19 years at one of the most influential ballet companies in the world, Mikhail Baryshnikov has called her “always arresting” onstage, and she was recently awarded the title of Kennedy Center’s Next 50 for her work advancing AAPI representation in the field of ballet. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that she has, again, made history this weekend during a performance of Balanchine’s 1928 ballet “Apollo.” Still, this news is a surprise to Pazcoguin.

With its original premiere in Paris and its City Ballet premiere in 1951, “Apollo” is the oldest Balanchine ballet in City Ballet’s repertory. The ballet tells the story of Apollo as a young god on a search for adulthood, as guided by the muses of mime, poetry, and dance. Principal dancer Tiler Peck, who has danced the role of Terpsichore (the muse of dance), has mentioned that her muse’s solo is quite difficult to perform: It doesn’t have any “firework moments.” For Polyhymnia, the muse of mime and one of the most renowned roles for women in this ballet, however, the “firework moment” appears to be Pazcoguin’s casting itself: She’s now the first company AAPI soloist to dance the role of this particular muse in City Ballet history.

As Pazcoguin tries to express her gratitude over the phone, she trips over her words as she tries to process in real time the gravity of the accomplishment. While she has worked doggedly for a moment like this one, her latest feat wouldn’t have happened if not for the misfortune of other company members.

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The field of American ballet has long been littered with one-dimensional caricatures and garish tropes of the Asian American experience. The most widely consumed ballet in the states, Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” for decades incorporated wildly exaggerated and historically incorrect Asian characters. One of which was, in Pazcoguin’s words, “dressed as a coolie… in his rice paddy hat, Fu Manchu mustache, and slanty-eye yellowface makeup, while doing split jumps.” To make matters worse, the character is often wheeled out of a tea box, instructed to bow repeatedly, and dressed in a geisha wig—a choice Pazcoguin has called “the icing on this racist cake.”

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Every December, conversations about how the AAPI community could be better represented, let alone included in ballet at all, has sparked an uproar of dancers and audience members alike. But the rage quickly dies down, giving way to submission and apathy that leaves AAPI ballet dancers in a bit of a repeated tailspin. It wasn’t until 2017 when Pazcoguin joined the City Ballet’s new state-mandated diversity committee that she was able to begin voicing her concerns within the institution and dismantling the caricatures that had haunted her Filipina American upbringing. Two years later, the City Ballet cast a biracial Trinidadian Filipino girl as Marie, the lead character in “The Nutcracker.”

The ongoing exclusion of Asian American women in ballet is, in part, why Pazcoguin’s casting is something to marvel at, but Pazcoguin says she wasn’t initially cast in the role. Instead, she’d been notified last-minute that she would be stepping in as an understudy after one dancer became ill and another suffered an injury.

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“It’s immensely humbling knowing you are not first, second, third or even fourth choice to dance a role and suddenly find yourself thrown into a final complete [rehearsal] with no stage lights or costume with a cast who is so wonderful and your directors crossing their fingers that you can do them this solid, earning their trust one literal step at a time,” Pazcoguin told Jezebel. “It’s awe inspiring. It’s suddenly dig deep time.”

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Pazcoguin says she believes she was ultimately cast in the role because she had performed the Polyhymnia variation multiple times for other small gig companies, although her last time doing so onstage was in 2018…nearly four years ago. Of course, she was heartbroken that her moment to shine had arisen from other dancers’ pain, but, as they say, the show must go on. She was prepared for the variation, but the opening and finale? That was a different story. On Saturday, she attended an emergency rehearsal, and by that evening, she found herself in front of an audience, nervously awaiting her moment in the wings.

“All of a sudden, not only are you getting thrown on, but you’re getting thrown into one of the most iconic Balanchine ballets during the Stravinsky festival, and I just kept on saying, ‘Thank you, thank you,’” she told me over the phone on Monday. “The fact that history was made this weekend…I still have not even processed that. I think we’re just grateful to be able to keep the show going, and during APA heritage month (APAHM) in May no less, it’s just…what a kismet of different things.”

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It’s not lost on Pazcoguin that her debut comes shortly after the one-year anniversary of a harrowing tragedy in the AAPI community. In March of 2021, a gunman shot and killed eight people in Atlanta—mostly Asian women. The racially motivated shooting ignited Americans across the country to take a hard look at the way Asian hate has been spewed throughout media and the arts for centuries. Through her Final Bow for Yellowface organization, which Pazcoguin and fellow dancer Phil Chan co-founded in 2017, she had tirelessly advocated for the profound need for AAPI diversity onstage, arguing that the invisibility of Asian American dancers is its own version of racial harm and erasure. With a haunting anniversary in the rearview, here was Georgina Pazcoguin taking the stage as an Asian American woman soloist in a part where she could not be hidden in the background.

“It just happened, and thank God it happened so fast because there was no time to doubt oneself. I just remember I was backstage in the wings about to go on, and I was watching my friend Sara [Adams] dance onstage, and I said to myself, ‘You were built for this,’ and something just aligned,” Pazcoguin said. “The women surrounding me and the women who prepared that role…there was so much love and support in the wings. That really, really helped me rise to the occasion.”

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It’s not the first time she’s earned a breakout role this way. Her first big opportunity to break out from the corps de ballet came from what she calls “throw ons.” In 2005, she stepped into her debut in Opus Jazz statics pas de duex with only a week’s notice. When she danced the principal role as the red girl in “Russian Seasons,” she stepped onstage with only an hour and a half rehearsal done on the same day of the show. It’s as though Pazcoguin has never succeeded effortlessly, but in spite of the barriers pushing against her.

A heart-pounding triumph, her “Apollo” debut was something of a bittersweet return to the stage. Last year, Pazcoguin published an eye-popping memoir titled “Swan Dive,” which highlights her sparkling and quirky personality through constant cussing and intimate narration. It also shockingly details the specific abuses, ranging from verbal to physical, she says she endured at the hands of some of the most revered figures in City Ballet history—including former artistic director Peter Martins. She alleged that her thighs had been criticized so frequently by company leaders that she ultimately chose to undergo surgery to make them smaller—a result of a long career of body dysmorphia as fostered by balletic institutions—and leveled accusations of institutionalized exclusion:

“I was a raven-haired apprentice newbie, cast as a maid in my first City Ballet Nutcracker because I was new. But it was clear I’d made B cast for a very different reason: my race. The older dancers joked about the B cast all the time—B cast = POC. A cast = lighter-skinned folk…Romeo + Juliet? Montagues were the blonds, Capulets were the dark-haired people. The villain was played by Albert or some other available Black dude. Every. Single. Time. Need an ambiguously ethnic, badass female? It’s Paz to the rescue!”

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If the white ballerinas more often then not secured the desired roles—the swans, the fairies, the queens, and princesses—then the dancers of color, she says, were cast as the villains or characters overcome by darkness. Though the entire field of ballet has diversified immensely, according to the New York Times, Pazcoguin was the only woman soloist who had not been cast in the beloved part of the Sugar Plum Fairy in “The Nutcracker” as of July 2021 (new dancers have been promoted to the soloist tier since then).

Less than a year after the publishing of her memoir, Pazcoguin has appeared sparingly within the 2022 season’s program bills. “Anyone who cares to follow my career knows that the past few seasons have been unusually slow for me. I was not called to learn this ballet officially with the company. I’ve never been called,” she said of the company’s casting process. “Casting is not within my purview. It ultimately comes down to one person’s final say, [who has been] influenced by a few others who have also been influenced by a system that has existed with little change for over 400 years.”

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Those 400 years of ingrained Eurocentric culture are exactly what she (and Chan) hopes to revise—not to “cancel” artists or companies, but to make an art form they both love better and more inclusive. Through Final Bow, they’re currently conducting a survey counting and measuring the experiences of AAPI identifying-dancers and companies. Their pledge to increase AAPI visibility in ballet has been signed by leaders across the field including Isabella Boylston and Misty Copeland, Principal Dancers at the American Ballet Theatre, and Tiler Peck, Principal Dancer at the New York City Ballet. According to Dance Magazine, the duo has also asked all ballet companies to commit to hiring an Asian choreographer by 2025 to avoid stereotyped interpretations of stories set in Asian locations—like the ballets La Bayadère, Bugaku, and Le Corsaire.

Although Pazcoguin is a self-proclaimed “Rogue Ballerina,” she still actively works within a field that upholds many of the racial barriers she speaks of smashing, a dynamic she admits has been tricky to navigate, much like her own “love hate” relationship with ballet.

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“It’s not been easy to be a dancer who’s used her voice so loudly, and it hasn’t come without its reprisal in a sense. But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop,” she says. “None of this work has been for my own advancement. This is for a bigger picture, this is for younger generations, and I guess to get a chance to really step up, step in and not only prove to myself but prove to the establishment that I’m still here… That means something.”

Looking back at the thrill of the performances that took place this past weekend, Pazcoguin can’t help but admit she’s just plain exhausted.

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“There’s just so much adrenaline and not to mention having to wear white tights and white shoes! There’s nothing daunting about that at all!” she shares with a laugh. But she can’t stop mentioning how full of gratitude she is: for the help she received and for the messages of support that landed in her inbox.

She’s also proud knowing that despite dwindling opportunities, she has always been ready to step up and dance. “Despite all the obstacles and what I may feel in my moments of deepest frustration with the monarchal environment of ballet companies in the macro sense, I’ve earned my seat at the table. I’m here dancing in this company at this moment in time for a reason, and the universe has an interesting way of reminding me of that exact fact,” she says. “It helped me rise to the occasion to break glass ceilings with a previous AD and now I hope I’ve been able to grab the attention of my current Artistic leadership to show that I still have much more to give than a theatrical character performance. I have always been a ballerina and I hope that I’ve expanded others’ idea of what a Muse in Apollo can look like.”

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She knows this success could be fleeting. Tomorrow, it could be her getting injured and pulled from a show. She also knows she’s not institutional ballet’s darling; if anything, she’s been a thorn in the side of the administrators and board members hoping to protect and cement what ballet once was. Yet for a new generation of dancers...well, she’s a hero.

“One of the questions that has always plagued me is who gets to be the Queen, the Muse, the Ballerina? Who’s imagination and world view decides that?” Pazcoguin has often wondered. For today, at the very least, the answer is hers.

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Jezebel has contacted the City Ballet for comment.