Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky premiered The Nutcracker in Russia’s Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg in 1892. Since then, its many iterations have filled theaters with multigenerational audiences and generated enough revenue for dance companies to operate for another year.
The Nutcracker continues to dominate the holiday season worldwide, attracting new audiences to ballet as well as regular-season attendees. Despite many new competing holiday offerings, it remains the enduring holiday performance of choice.
The Nutcracker ballet itself has many variations from which to choose. Today, one of the more popular versions is based on the original 1892 adaptation by Marius Petipa/Lev Ivanov. French writer Alexander Dumas brings back the 1816 original story by E.T.A. Hoffmann about a young girl, Marie, and her toy Nutcracker that comes to life to kill the Mouse King. Marie then is transported to a land of exotic dolls. On stage, the dolls are depicted by dancers performing a panorama of appropriated cultures, however arcane and reductive.
Over time, the Nutcracker has had numerous re-imaginings with reboots for film, television, and even animations to appeal to contemporary audiences. Parents continue to bring their children to view performances and continue what has become a family tradition.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Covid pandemic, many ballet companies are rethinking and addressing how some scenes in the Nutcracker continue to perpetuate racial stereotypes.
On stage, many dance companies are rethinking how the dances in Act II’s Land of the Sweets are performed. These are plotless divertissements devised to showcase dancer virtuosity and demi-character solos in classical ballet. Scenes such as Chocolates, Marzipans, Sugar Plum Fairies, Dewdrops, and the infamous Tea and Coffee are increasingly singled out for choreography, gestures, costumes, and makeup in their cartoonish depictions of Asian people and the sexualizing of Arab women. Once presented at the pleasure of the European privileged class, the Nutcracker is a stark reminder of the effects of colonialism.
Presentations of the Nutcracker have also raised racial diversity issues, with dancers of color hired by contemporary ballet companies still a relative rarity. Traditional productions by design were cast with primarily white dancers. Many companies are now making statements about rooting out structural racism, but it remains to be seen whether that will change significantly.
In a 2013 Dance Magazine article, African American choreographer Donald Byrd explained why he created The Harlem Nutcracker, scored to Duke Ellington’s jazz orchestra version of Tchaikovsky’s score to celebrate the holiday season in ways that represented the African American diaspora.
“I don’t find The Nutcracker racist,” Byrd said. “I think it’s Eurocentric in terms of its perspective. You’re being told a story—even when it’s set in America—from the perspective of a traditional 19th-century European household.” But he clearly recognized the negative implications, adding, “Anybody that was not European is presented as exotic—the notion of the Other. I would say it’s exclusive rather than racist. It excludes the Other and reserves its experiences for a particular group: Anglo-Europeans.”
There are a handful of annual productions in Philadelphia, the most elaborate being George Balanchine’s Nutcracker, which has been performed here since 1968 by The Philadelphia Ballet (formerly Pennsylvania Ballet). This version of The Nutcracker, created in 1954, is a neoclassical version of what Balanchine refined from Russia’s Imperial Ballet productions.
Philadelphia Ballet is only one of four companies licensed to perform it, and The Balanchine Trust keeps a watchful eye that it stays faithful to Balanchine’s choreography. It is a dazzling version in many ways, even if it can look like a museum piece if not tweaked in specific ways for 21st-century audiences.
In recent years, Philadelphia Ballet artistic director Angel Corella has been doing the tweaking. The Act I Christmas Party scene is livelier and more naturalistic. The ‘Tea dance’ has been rethought with the demeaning gestures now gone and subservient costumery changed.
Corella stated he is open to other changes as they come up. He said the dialogue about it is a positive step, and it is essential to know the context of problematic cultural depictions from different eras.
Cracking Nuts & Spilling the Tea
At the forefront of addressing offensive aspects of classical ballet, repertory is Phil Chan, a dancer, choreographer, author, and co-founder of Final Bow for Yellowface. Along with New York City Ballet soloist Georgina Pazcoguin, they consult with dance companies to rethink racist aspects of their stage productions.
Over 30 dance companies have committed to making changes by signing the organization’s Pledge to rethink insensitive portrayals of different races and cultures in their classical and contemporary repertory.
In a Zoom interview last week, Phil Chan explained that “The Pledge has never been a signaling of perfection.” The first step for a company is that they would even be “willing to have this conversation.” He notes that it will be an ongoing evolution that will take time.
Chan goes on to state, “It’s time for us to replace caricature with character.” Even though many companies have started new choreography and costuming for the ‘Tea’ divertissement in the Nutcracker, Chan stresses that there are “deeper issues of general orientalism of any dance piece that places a European fantasy of an exotic culture when that culture is actually a real culture in our community.”
“Cultural appropriation for me means you may be trying to pay homage to my culture, but you’re not including me.” Chan explains, “What we want to see is quite the opposite. We hope companies will represent Chinese culture and bring in Chinese people to envision how to do it right.”
He cites Pacific North Ballet as one of the best examples of changing the offensive ‘Tea’ divertissement with its submissive “Chinaman” with a Cricket, the symbol of spring and hope.
San Francisco Ballet was also one of the first major ballet companies to restage the scene, making it a celebrant dance with a Chinese Dragon, a symbolic touchstone of Chinese cultural heritage.
Chan also cites the Royal Ballet for changing its previously lurid ‘Coffee’ scene. “They toned down the highly sexualized Harem scene of a “woman dancing for four leering men and made it a beautiful duet between a man and woman.”
Other than Nutcracker’s mummified traditions, Chan said that the Artistic Directors, in many cases, haven’t questioned the content of the ballet that continues to be a leading moneymaker for the company. “Many artistic directors are former dancers who are not good at the dynamics of orientalism and other sensitive issues. That’s why they need people in their orbit who do know what needs to be updated.”
Chan observes that in many cases, “Once you become aware of the racist tropes, you cannot unsee them.”
Besides the financial aspect, Chan observed that addressing these issues was more an opportunity to strengthen the appeal of the Nutcracker.
“The Nutcracker is probably the first introduction for children to experience ballet. If it’s filled with caricature, what does it say about how that informs their worldview? Nobody does the original Nutcracker anymore. So, it has a life of its own that needs to be updated, and trimmed, and improved.”
Over the years, Chan has danced in many productions of the Nutcracker. He has previously danced “the Cavalier and everything except Sugar Plum Fairy and Tea.” This year, he will dance his first Herr Drosselmeir at the Oakland Ballet, where he will also be choreographing two works on the company, which will have their premieres in 2022.
Chan muses on the enduring appeal of the Nutcracker and his vision for what it could be for diverse contemporary audiences. “The allegory of a little girl from the old world – it could be Dickensian England, or old-world China or Africa – she gets to come to this new place, where there are so many different people with all these cultures living together and dancing together. So, Americans are uniquely positioned to tell the story to mirror the ideals of this country.”
“I see that there is progress, and this is going to take time.” He cites only one ballet company at present “that gets a completely passing grade.”
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