Xiao Nan Yu: The National Ballet’s prima ballerina reprises her debut role in Onegin

Xiao Nan Yu Onegin ballet

Xiao Nan Yu Onegin ballet
Photography by Vanessa Heins

By Alexandra Breen

When it comes to encapsulating the pathos and fervour of a melodrama like Onegin, based on Alexander Pushkin’s novel Eugene Onegin, experience can be your best weapon. Just ask Xiao Nan Yu (a.k.a. Nan), a dancer for The National Ballet of Canada who first took on the role of Onegin’s Tatiana at age 22, just before climbing the ranks of the company to become a principal.

“It was a fast promotion,” she says before diving into a rehearsal. “I felt pressure to live up to their standards and questioned whether I did enough to deserve it.” Years of critical acclaim later, the 36-year-old is reprising her cherished Tatiana role this month (March 19-23) opposite McGee Maddox at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.

“I love that Onegin is a story ballet,” says Yu of the transition her character makes from a young country girl enamoured with an aristocrat to a sophisticated woman torn between two men. The quixotic journey is precisely reflected in Tatiana’s Santo Loquasto-designed attire—a wardrobe that includes loose-fitting nightdresses and lavish red- and gold-beaded gowns. “The costumes make you feel her transformation,” Yu says.

Like her character, she is no stranger to personal evolution. “My state of mind is very different,” she says, thinking back to when she first played Tatiana. Now a mother of two daughters (aged two and nine), Yu says she views Onegin in an entirely different light.

“Now I understand the sacrifice Tatiana makes when [she’s forced to] choose between love and responsibilities. We don’t really live for ourselves, because we have so many people that surround us that we care so much about.”

Born in China, Yu began taking dance lessons at four. By eight, she was living at a ballet boarding school. “I was so homesick, I cried every time my parents visited and asked them to take me home.” At 17, she was recruited by Canada’s National Ballet School and packed her bags without knowing a word of English.

Yu’s story reads like a ballet world fairy tale with a Black Swan edge. Her packed schedule typically includes six hours of training three days a week, another three hours two days a week, yoga and running once a week and Pilates twice a week. “You’re tired, your body is hurting, your joints are aching. You take a day off and you lose six hours of training, and that can delay the time it takes for you to go on stage,” she explains. This perpetual ticking clock was exaggerated during her pregnancies. “It was scary. I was so fit and then slowly I saw my arms [getting bigger] and my belly coming out.” She took class until a month before the births, returned to work two months post-labour and was back on stage after six months.

“We have dancers who just joined the company who are 18 or 19. There are always going to be people who are younger, prettier or have more potential than you,” she says. “You have to believe that you have something that another person can’t replace.” While Karen Kain danced into her 40s, Yu says she’ll hang up her pointe shoes when the joys of dancing no longer outweigh the sacrifices: “You need passion to carry you through the pain.” Both on and off stage, hers is palpable.