Meredith Martin and Phil Chan on ‘Reimagining the Ballet des Porcelaines’

Meredith Martin
(Photo © : Joshua Kwassman)

“Inspired by a fairy tale in the same literary milieu as Beauty and the Beast (1740), the original ‘Ballet des Porcelaines’ was performed at a country house outside of Paris nearly three centuries ago and has not been seen since. I am thrilled to have worked with choreographer and Final Bow for Yellowface co-founder Phil Chan and our team of artists to bring this ballet to life—on stage and on the page—and to update the production for our present moment.”

Phil Chan
(Photo © : Eli Schmidt)

 “I am delighted to share this reimagined Baroque ballet and its related publication with contemporary audiences, and to challenge the singular Eurocentric view of “Chinese” people and culture that have continued to be performed unquestioned in the Western arts canon. In this current moment when Asians living in the minority are being subject to heightened levels of attacks, our ballet begs audiences to see us with nuance and humanity.”


Reimagining the Ballet des Porcelaines
A Tale of Magic, Desire, and Exotic Entanglement


Edited by Meredith Martin

In September 1739 at the château de Morville near Paris, a group of elite amateur artists staged a ballet pantomime known as the “Ballet des Porcelaines,” and sometimes also as “The Teapot Prince.” Written by the comte de Caylus, with music by Grandval, it tells the story of a prince who searches for his beloved on a faraway island ruled by an evil magician. The magician has turned the island’s inhabitants into porcelain, an event the audience witnesses in the form of a male and female singer who spin around on stage until they transform into vases. Aside from the libretto and the score, nothing survives of the Ballet des Porcelaines. The costumes and choreography are unknown. Although it inspired later famous ballets featuring sleeping beauties and porcelain princesses, it seems to have been staged only twice: first in 1739 and again two years later on the grounds of the estate, next to a lake encircled by vases and an illuminated arch suggesting a nighttime performance. The château’s owner served as France’s foreign minister and promoted trade with Asia. We can assume some kind of chinoiserie imagery and context for the ballet, which can be interpreted both as a standard fairy tale love story and as an allegory for the intense European desire to know and steal the secrets of porcelain manufacture. The ballet is an example of the deep intertwining of visual and performing arts in eighteenth-century France, and to an enchantment with Asia embodied on stage and in life by porcelain goods. The plot’s animation of porcelain also relates to a period understanding of the permeable boundary between persons and things manifested in a variety of cultural forms. The ballet exemplifies the profound sense of magic, mystery, and desire that porcelain instilled in European viewers (who referred to it as “white gold”), an effect that is lost on many museumgoers today.

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