Xiao Nan Yu in company class. Aaron Vincent, Courtesy National Ballet of Canada.

Xiao Nan Yu Reflects on Retiring from National Ballet of Canada After 22 Years

On June 22, National Ballet of Canada principal Xiao Nan Yu will retire from the stage after 22 years with the company. Originally from Dalian, China, Yu studied at the Shen Yang School of Dance and the Beijing Dance Academy before coming to Canada's National Ballet School at age 17. She joined the National Ballet of Canada less than two years later, and was promoted to principal in 2001.

"She is a supreme dance actress with an innate ability to bring the audience into her world," says NBoC artistic director Karen Kain. "Nan has always brought such a calm confidence into the studio and has been a role model for so many dancers I will miss her generosity both inside the studio and out." We spoke with Yu as she prepared for her final week of performances. She opened up about her initial culture shock upon moving to Toronto, her thoughts on artistry and why she chose Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow as her final role.


How did you wind up at Canada's National Ballet School?

I was competing at the Prix de Lausanne, and the principal of the Ballet School was on the jury. After the competition she offered me a scholarship to come and study. I was graduating the next year, and I thought, What a great opportunity for me to try out what ballet is like in the Western world.

You arrived in Toronto without speaking a word of English. How was that transition?

Oh, culture shock for sure! But I was really well looked after. The kids were super-friendly, and when you're young, you pick up the language really quickly. I took English classes, but being with my friends and classmates really helped. The school also set me up with a family that took me under their wing, to give me a connection outside of the school, and they brought me into the Chinese community and helped me integrate into society.

And ballet class was fine. I'd been to competitions, and could understand when people were giving corrections, when the only way we could communicate is through the ballet language. It is an international language, so when I stepped into the studio it felt like home.

After barely two years in the school, you joined NBoC. What were those early years like?

When you're young and joining a company, you really try to see how you fit in, and what you can learn from the professionals, because there's a big age gap. A nice surprise was when I got to do leading roles when I was in the corps de ballet. Our previous director, James Kudelka, wanted me to do the lead in Swan Lake when I was 21. That was my first big role and that was really wow!

Yu in Onegin

Aleksandar Antonijevic, Courtesy NBoC

How did you find out you were being promoted to principal?

At the end of the season James called me into the office and said, "I think you're ready,. I'd like to promote you to principal," and I was like, "Are you sure?" Had I done enough ballet to have the experience to take on these roles? But at the same time it was exciting, because he trusted in me and believed that I could carry on this title to be the center of the whole ballet. I also felt like I needed to work extra hard to prove to myself and to him that I could do it.

Has there been a point when you felt like you didn't have to prove yourself anymore?

I wouldn't say that I need approval for how I dance, but it's more about what I can offer. As artists it's really important to know who you really are and what you can do; it's not about pleasing others, it's about the trueness of the artistry. If you wait for approval then you lose your individuality and uniqueness. Throughout my career I've been told bluntly that I wasn't suited for certain roles; if you have the mentality that if you can please them you'll get the role, you're set up for huge disappointment. It's important for artists all over the world to realize that they're good enough for what they do.

Yu in rehearsal for The Sleeping Beauty

Karolina Kuras, Courtesy NBoC

What are some of your favorite principal roles?

Tatiana in Onegin and Giselle. I love all the big classics, also Juliet. When I first started out I wasn't quite used to the contemporary, or even Balanchine stuff, but I have enjoyed jumping over that barrier. When things are frustrating, it's nice to make sense of it and be able to find joy in it. There's nothing worse as an artist than doing a piece you really don't enjoy.

The roles that you've listed all have a big acting component. Have you always loved that aspect of performance?

When there's a story line it's, of course, easier to carry on throughout the ballet. But ballet itself is a body language; there are no words to be spoken onstage, so I find it fascinating how you can transform your body to tell the story. Very small gestures can tell totally different stories. We just finished Anna Karenina with John Neumeier, and some of the steps are quite modern, but you're able tell through the steps what he wants you to express to the audience. It's different than classical ballet, but it was amazing.

How did you choose to dance Ronald Hynd's The Merry Widow for your retirement performance?

I talked to Karen about how I wanted to finish my career. I have many favorite ballets, but if I were to pick just one it would be really unfair to the others. I've always loved the role of Hanna in Widow because she's confident, she's glamorous, she's fun and she's very sure of what she wants to do, which sort of reflects how I feel right now at this age, and in my decision regarding retirement. And overall it's a heartwarming story, and the music you can't just not fall in love with. It's a celebration; finishing on a high note.

What do you think is the secret to having such a long career?

It's a tough profession. The constant training, and mental and physical challenge. Sometimes being picked by the color of your hair or the length of your legs, it's really picky. But you've got to be mentally very strong, and you've got to love it.

And my warm up is longer—it it was a half hour before and it's gone to an hour. I have physio and I have massage. The company's medical team is amazing.

Yu in Swan Lake

Cylla von Tiedemann, Courtesy NBoC

You have two children, ages 14 and 17. How has being a mother affected you as a dancer?

It made ballet more precious. Before I became a mom, my world was ballet and my own time. After I became a mom, it's being a mom and ballet; there's hardly ever my own time, so each time I come to work it's precious to me because I know when I go home I don't have the luxury to sit in front of the TV and watch videos to study and sew my shoes. When I go to the studio I don't have any time to waste. I really use every single second.

What's next for you?

I've been talking with the Ballet School, and they'd love to have me back to teach. I've been teaching on and off, though dancing in the company was my full focus. I've even taught company class. After being a professional for 23 years, there's a lot of experiences you can really deliver to the younger generation, so I'll definitely stick around the ballet world.

Latest Posts


Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

2020 Stars of the Corps: 10 Dancers Making Strides In and Out of the Spotlight

The corps de ballet make up the backbone of every company. In our Fall 2020 issue, we highlighted 10 ensemble standouts to keep your eye on. Click on their names to learn more!

Dara Holmes, Joffrey Ballet

A male dancer catches a female dancer in his right arm as she wraps her left arm around his shoulder and executes a high arabesque on pointe. Both wear white costumes and dance in front of a blue backdrop onstage.

Dara Holmes and Edson Barbosa in Myles Thatcher's Body of Your Dreams

Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet

Wanyue Qiao, American Ballet Theatre

Wearing a powder blue tutu, cropped light yellow top and feather tiara, Wanyue Qiao does a piqu\u00e9 retir\u00e9 on pointe on her left leg and pulls her right arm in towards her.

Wanyue Qiao as an Odalisque in Konstantin Sergeyev's Le Corsaire

Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT

Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson, Houston Ballet

Three male dancers in tight-fitting, multicolored costumes stand in positions of ascending height from left to right. All extend their right arms out in front of them.

Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson (far right) with Saul Newport and Austen Acevedo in Oliver Halkowich's Following

Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet

Leah McFadden, Colorado Ballet

Wearing a white pixie wig and a short light-pink tunic costume, a female ballet dancer poses in attitude front on pointe with her left arm bent across her ribs and her right hand held below her chin.

Leah McFadden as Amour in Colorado Ballet's production of Don Quixote

Mike Watson, Courtesy Colorado Ballet

Maria Coelho, Tulsa Ballet

Maria Coelho and Sasha Chernjavsky in Andy Blankenbuehler's Remember Our Song

Kate Lubar, Courtesy Tulsa Ballet

Alexander Reneff-Olson, San Francisco Ballet

A ballerina in a black feathered tutu stands triumphantly in sous-sus, holding the hand of a male dancer in a dark cloak with feathers underneath who raises his left hand in the air.

Alexander Reneff-Olson (right) as Von Rothbart with San Francisco Ballet principal Yuan Yuan Tan in Swan Lake

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

India Bradley, New York City Ballet

Wearing a blue dance dress with rhinestone embellishments and a sparkly tiara, India Bradley finishes a move with her arms out to the side and hands slightly flexed.

India Bradley practices backstage before a performance of Balanchine's Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2.

Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB

Bella Ureta, Cincinnati Ballet

Wearing a white dress with pink corset, Bella Ureta does a first arabesque on pointe in front of an onstage stone wall.

Bella Ureta performs the Act I Pas de Trois in Kirk Peterson's Swan Lake

Hiromi Platt, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

Alejándro Gonzales, Oklahoma City Ballet

Dressed in a green bell-boy costume and hat, Alejandro Gonz\u00e1lez does a saut\u00e9 with his left leg in retir\u00e9 and his arms in a long diagonal from right to left. Other dancers in late 19-century period costumes watch him around the stage.

Alejandro González in Michael Pink's Dracula at Oklahoma City Ballet.

Kate Luber, Courtesy Oklahoma City Ballet

Nina Fernandes, Miami City Ballet

Wearing a long white tutu and crown, Nina Fernandes does a saut de chat in front of a wintery backdrop as snow falls from the top of the stage.

Nina Fernandes in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker

Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Miami City Ballet

Quinn Wharton

Pacific Northwest Ballet's Angelica Generosa Shares Her Classic, Comfy Style In and Out of the Studio

"I love the feeling and look of effortless fashion," says Angelica Generosa. Preferring a classic style, the Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist keeps her wardrobe stocked with blazers. But they serve a practical purpose, too. "It tends to get chilly in Seattle, so it's the perfect accessory for layering," Generosa explains.

She's also quite fond of designer handbags. "They're my go-to accessory, and they're also my weakness when shopping," she says, naming Chloé, Chanel and Dior as some of her favorite brands. "I really appreciate the craftsmanship it takes to produce one—they're so beautiful and each has its own story, in a way."

In the studio, Generosa prioritizes comfort, and she'll change up her look depending on the repertoire (leotards and tutus for classical works, breathable shirts with workout pants for contemporary). But she always arrives to work in style. "I really love putting together outfits for even just going to the studio," she says. "It's another way of expressing my mood and what kind of vibe I'm going for that day."

The Details: Street

Angelica Generosa, wearing a blue blazer, white blouse and gray jeans, is photographed from underneath as she walks and looks to the right.

Quinn Wharton

BCBG blazer: "It has some shoulder pads and a really cool pattern," says Generosa. "It reminds me of my mom and '80s fashion."

Zara blouse: She incorporate neutrals, like this white satin button-up, to balance bright pops of colors.

Angelica Generosa looks off to her right in front of a glass-windowed building. She wears a blue blazer, white blouse, gray jeans and carries a small green handbag.

Quinn Wharton

Madewell jeans: Comfort is a major factor for Generosa, who gets her fashion inspiration from her mom, friends and people she comes across day to day.

Chloé bag: "I tend to have smaller purses because I'm quite small. Bigger bags overwhelm me sometimes—unless it's my dance bag, of course!"

The Details: Studio

Angleica Generosa, wearing a blue tank leotard, black wool leggings and pink pointe shoes, balances in a lunge on pointe with her left leg in front, facing a wall of windows.

Quinn Wharton

Label Dancewear leotard: "This was designed by my good friend Elizabeth Murphy, a principal dancer here at PNB. Her leotards always fit me really well."

Mirella leggings: "I get cold easily," says Generosa, who wears leggings and vests to stay warm throughout the day.

Angelica Generosa, wearing a blue tank leotard, black wool tights and pink pointe shoes, jumps and crosses her right foot over her left shin while lifting her arms up to the right.

Quinn Wharton

Freed of London pointe shoes: "When sewing them, I crisscross my elastics and use an elasticized ribbon from Body Wrappers," which helps alleviate Achilles tendon issues, she says. She then trims the satin off of the tip of the shoe. "Then I bend the shank a bit to loosen it up and cut a bit off where my arch is."

Getty Images

This New "Nutcracker" Competition Wants Your Dance Studio to be Part of a Virtual Collaboration

Despite worldwide theater closures, the Universal Ballet Competition is keeping The Nutcracker tradition alive in 2020 with an online international competition. The event culminates in a streamed, full-length video of The Virtual Nutcracker consisting of winning entries on December 19. The competition is calling on studios, as well as dancers of all ages and levels, to submit videos by November 29 to be considered.

"Nutcracker is a tradition that is ingrained in our hearts," says UBC co-founder Lissette Salgado-Lucas, a former dancer with Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Joffrey Ballet. "We danced it for so long as professionals, we can't wait to pass it along to dancers through this competition."

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks