As "The Nutcracker" returns, companies rethink representations of Asians

A new character is featured this year in “The Nutcracker” of the Pacific Northwest’s “The Nutcracker”: Green Tea Cricket, a resilient su...


A new character is featured this year in “The Nutcracker” of the Pacific Northwest’s “The Nutcracker”: Green Tea Cricket, a resilient superhero-like figure meant to counter culture stereotypes. Chinese.

Tulsa Ballet, hoping to dispel outdated representations of Asians, imbues its production with elements of martial arts, choreographed by a dancer of Chinese descent.

And the Boston Ballet offers a new show: a pas de deux inspired by traditional Chinese ribbon dance.

“The Nutcracker,” the classic holiday ballet, is back after the long pandemic shutdown. But many dance companies are reworking the show this year in part in response to a wave of anti-Asian hatred that intensified during the pandemic, and a broader recognition of racial discrimination.

“Everyone has learned a lot this year, and I just want to make sure that there is absolutely nothing that can ever be considered insulting to Chinese culture,” said Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of the Boston Ballet, who choreographed the ribbon dance. “We look at everything from a diversity, equity and inclusion perspective. This is the way of the future.

Artistic conductors drop items such as bamboo hats and pointed finger movements, which are often exhibited during the so-called tea scene in the second act, when the dancers perform a short routine featuring Chinese tea. (This is one of a series of national dances, including hot chocolate from Spain and coffee from Arabia.)

At least one company, the Berlin State Ballet, has decided to forgo “The Nutcracker” entirely this year, due to growing concern over racist portrayals of Asians. The company said in a statement last week that it was considering ways to “re-contextualize” the ballet and eventually bring it back.

The changes are the result of a multi-year effort by artists and activists to bring attention to Asian stereotypes in “The Nutcracker”. Some famous groups – including the New York City Ballet and the Royal Ballet in London – several years ago made adjustments to the tea scene, eliminating elements like Fu Manchu-type mustaches for male dancers.

The sharp rise in reports of anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic, along with the recent focus on the legacy of discrimination in dance, opera and classical music, have brought new urgency to the effort. .

Performers and activists called on cultural institutions to put more emphasis on Asian singers, dancers, choreographers and composers. Some opera companies are re-examining repertoire staples like “Madame Butterfly” and “Turandot”, which contain racist caricatures. Others, like the Boston Lyric Opera, organize public debates about the works and their stereotypes.

“People are finally connecting the dots between the idea that what we put on stage actually has an impact on people off stage,” said Phil Chan, arts administrator and former dancer who pushed for rethinking. -Hazelnut”.

In 2018, Chan began circulating a pledge titled “Final Bow for Yellowface,” which calls for eliminating outdated and offensive stereotypes in ballet. It has collected approximately 1,000 signatures from dancers, choreographers, educators and administrators.

The decision to exclude racist elements from dance was not without controversy, especially in Europe.

The Scottish Ballet eliminated cartoons like nods and ponytails from their ‘The Nutcracker’ this year. The production also breaks with tradition by having both male and female dancers play the role of magician Drosselmeyer.

“We have found ourselves in a place where we can celebrate what we are putting on rather than trying to defend it,” said Christopher Hampson, artistic director of the Scottish Ballet.

But some observers were not happy.

“How racist is it to portray the most recognizable attributes of a culture? Said one remark about the new production, which aired in November on Russian state television. “In 2021, even ballet is not immune to the PC police.”

The Berlin State Ballet’s decision to skip “The Nutcracker” this year has angered some cultural critics, who have voiced concerns about free speech.

“People are not stupid,” Roger Köppel, former editor of Die Welt, a German newspaper, said in an email. “They can think for themselves and don’t have to be shielded and shielded from art that is declared politically incorrect by people who want to impose their worldview on us all.”

The stakes are high. For many ballet companies, “The Nutcracker” is the biggest show of the year – a financial lifeline that generates a significant percentage of annual ticket sales.

Dancers and artistic leaders said reinventing “The Nutcracker” was essential to attracting a diverse audience. But some said there was still room for improvement.

KJ Takahashi, a City Ballet dancer who performs in the tea scene in this year’s “The Nutcracker,” which opened the day after Thanksgiving, said he welcomed the changes. Takahashi, who is of Japanese descent, said the revisions made him feel more included. Still, he said, there was more to do, noting that he finds the costumes dated and inauthentic.

“The little things make a big difference,” he said. “We can go even further in precision. “

The Colorado Ballet staged a “Nutcracker” this month with new costumes, including in the tea scene. The rainbow colors of a dragon appearing on stage are inspired by Asian street food.

Some companies are reworking the tea scene entirely, believing that more can be done to resonate it with modern audiences.

Peter Boal, artistic director of the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, has been experimenting with ways to tone down Asian stereotypes in his “The Nutcracker” since 2015. But as Boal saw the rise in anti-Asian hatred this year, he decided to go further time changes for the opening night, November 26.

He had long wanted to add a cricket, a symbol of luck in China, to “The Nutcracker”. Just a few weeks ago, he obtained authorization from the Balanchine Trust, which owns the rights to the version produced by the company. (The trust found the early sketches too bug-like, Boal said.)

During the visit to Candy Land, the cricket now emerges from a rolled-up box on stage and performs a series of acrobatic movements, much like the choreography in the original, in which a man dressed in stereotypical Chinese clothes steps out of the room. box.

“The importance of change has really come to the fore this year,” Boal said, noting the spread of anti-Asian hatred. He said he wanted a production that was “in line with our sensibilities today and our respect for other people and members of the audience and the community.”

Small dance groups are also making changes.

At Butler University in Indianapolis, professors and students found themselves increasingly uncomfortable with national dances, which they believed to be reduced to cartoonish cultures. This year, they renamed the tea scene “Dragon Beard Candy” after a favorite Chinese candy. The choreography of the stage is partly inspired by the Monkey King, a mythical warrior animal from classical Chinese literature.

“You might not be affected by these issues because you don’t have to be,” said Ramon Flowers, assistant professor at Butler who choreographs parts of the production. “But by highlighting this and spreading it as often as possible, we can inspire change. “

Asian-born dancers and choreographers say revisions to “The Nutcracker” are long overdue.

Ma Cong, resident choreographer of Tulsa Ballet, said he was confused when he first saw the productions of “The Nutcracker” featuring overdone make-up and stereotypical costumes. Ma, who grew up in China, remembers thinking, “It’s not Chinese.”

Tulsa Ballet will present a production of “The Nutcracker” on December 10 choreographed by Ma and Val Caniparoli. For the tea scene, Ma incorporates elements of tai chi and classical Chinese dance.

Ma said the rise in anti-Asian violence and the spread of terms like “Chinese virus” encouraged her to bring more elements of Chinese culture to the production.

“It’s a simple word: respect,” he said. “It’s really important to have respect for all cultures and to be as authentic as possible. “



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