Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’ changes the way it portrays Asians

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The second half of “The Nutcracker” takes place in candy country, with a mishmash of “C’est un petit monde” characters. There is the Sugarplum fairy, marzipan and tea – which in some versions are called Chinese. The choreography traditionally includes shuffling feet, hopping heads and pointing fingers. And the costumes often involve Fu Manchu mustaches, overdone eye makeup, and sometimes even a yellow face.

Phil Chan is Chinese-American and remembers seeing “The Nutcracker” as a child and telling his father that he wanted to someday be in the ballet.

“And, you know, at the end of the show, he’s looking at me and he’s like, ‘Do you really want to do this? That’s all they’ll see you. Do you really want to devote your time, your energy to it. and your life? ‘ “

Today, Chan is the co-founder of Final arc for Yellowface, an organization that has been working since 2017 to change outdated representations of Asians in ballet. His first mission was to help companies reorganize “The Nutcracker”, one of the most famous ballet productions.

Like many arts institutions that rely on in-person performances, ballet companies have had a hard time during the pandemic. Many of them have returned to dancing just in time for the annual “The Nutcracker” magazine, which accounts for about half of the companies’ annual box office sales. Safety precautions are a high priority in productions this year. But during a pandemic that has led to an increase in violence against Asian Americans, there is a heightened call to change the way the Chinese are portrayed in the second act of the ballet.

“We’re not trying to cancel ‘The Nutcracker’. We try to keep it alive for everyone, ”Chan said. “Because if an audience comes and sees only the yellow face instead of the dance, they will leave unsatisfied and miss the beauty of the dance. “

It is the great concern, that these stereotypes put off a younger and younger audience. Because “The Nutcracker” isn’t just the industry’s cash cow, it’s the front door ballet.

“Our ability to attract people to future shows is really ingrained in ‘The Nutcracker’,” said Ellen Walker, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle.

Three quarters of first-time ticket buyers visit the company via “The Nutcracker”. And if they like what they see, they will often try their luck on another line-up, another history ballet like “Swan Lake” or something more modern.

“And then this return often leads to another return, which often leads to a contribution to our annual fund. And that continuum of engagement to build relationships with customers, ”Walker said. “’The Nutcracker’ is absolutely, extremely important. “

This year, the company worked with Final Bow for Yellowface to change the costumes for the Chinese section. The main dancer is now a cricket, a symbol of good fortune in Chinese culture.

Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer Christian Poppe embodies cricket in a scene from George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker”. (Photo © Angela Sterling)
Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer Christian Poppe as Cricket in a scene from The Nutcracker® by George Balanchine.  (Photo © Angela Sterling.
Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Noah Martzall embodies cricket in a scene from George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker”. (Photo © Angela Sterling)

“He went from being a caricature to being a character that wasn’t offensive and was approached with respect,” Walker said. “And when that cricket comes out of the box, it’s really, really exciting.”

Updates to historic ballets don’t come without careful consideration. Pacific Northwest dances George Balanchine’s version, which is copyrighted, and changes require trust approval.

There are also fans who believe in preservation and that changing choreography or costumes is like painting on a Van Gogh.

“They think the story is static and to respect the story you want the authentic, the real thing,” said Jennifer Fisher, dance expert and author of “Nutcracker Nation”. “But the technique of ballet and its performances have changed a lot over the years to appeal to different audiences, while simply advancing the art form.”

Fisher said part of the appeal of ballet is that it evolves. That since its beginnings in the 15th century, skirts have gotten shorter and jumped and flashier – and making ballet more inclusive is a similar step. She hopes companies will look beyond “The Nutcracker” and re-evaluate other classics that include problematic portrayals of blacks and browns.

Because it’s not just about selling more tickets, it’s about recruiting a more diverse set of students to become dancers, choreographers and directors. “It will be an exclusive form until his death if you don’t start speaking to your current audience,” Fisher said.


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