Can lessons learned at “The Nutcracker” change the face of ballet?

Can lessons learned at “The Nutcracker” change the face of ballet?
New York City Ballet's "The Nutcracker." Photo: Erin Baiano.

Just as the first glimmers of Tchaikovsky’s twinkling “Nutcracker” score began to waft through the city this November, a group gathered at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts for a frank discussion about the holiday staple. The topic: cultural stereotypes in the ballet’s confectionary-tinged second act.

The evening was conducted by Phil Chan and New York City Ballet soloist Georgina Pazcoguin, founders of “Final Bow for Yellowface,” an initiative that aims to rid the stage of outdated Asian stereotypes. To this end, the duo have played an instrumental role in raising awareness around the Chinese Tea dance in “The Nutcracker” — a segment that, as Chan and Pazcoguin demonstrated through archival clips, has vacillated over the years between blatant caricature (think slanted eyeliner, parasols and head-bobbing) and respectful representation.

Increasingly, the “Tea” presentation in the ballet’s Land of Sweets has come under fire, with critics arguing that the portrayals of Chinese culture are insensitive and outdated. Others have also noted that Arabian Coffee, another segment in Act II, similarly depicts offensive caricature. The attention has brought in a sweep of changes, with some companies making subtle alterations and others creating entirely new works.

In what has become an oft-cited spark in the discussion, New York City Ballet updated its “Tea” dance in 2017 (though “Coffee” remains the same) by slightly adjusting the makeup, costumes and choreography, doing away with the pointed index fingers and shuffled steps. Spurred by Pazcoguin, who had herself danced the role, then-director Peter Martins spoke with Chan about updating the segment — a move that, given the prominence of the company’s “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” was poised to send ripples through dance companies across the country.

“I left that meeting, and I called Gina, and I said, ‘I think Peter Martins is going to change ‘The Nutcracker,’” Chan recollected. “And this is sort of like America’s hallmark, signature production. So if Peter Martins, who’s one of the most conservative standard bearers of this Balanchine legacy, is willing to have this conversation and update it and make modifications to be more inclusive, then why not everybody else in the country?”

Following the success at NYCB, Chan and Pazcoguin created the “Final Bow for Yellowface” pledge to get other companies involved. They also created resources that live on their website to help organizations broach change within their own communities.

“What we found was that we didn’t start the fire,” Chan said. “Essentially, we weren’t starting the conversation; we were really just consolidating a lot of conversations that were already happening.”

The initiative has since gained the support of major ballet companies and arts leaders, with momentum continuing to build. In November, for example, Kansas City Ballet announced that it was signing the pledge and that it would work to phase out its Chinese stereotypes. And recently, Royal Ballet resident choreographer Wayne McGregor added his name to the list, writing that dance “should transcend all boundaries and stereotypes.”

“[We’re] really trying to be a resource for the community at large to have the dialog, because from where we stand, if our audiences think that our work is racist or outdated, it really kills the art form,” Chan said. “This will kill ballet if we don’t have this conversation, especially as we’re looking to diversify our audiences, our schools, our boards, our donors. If we want Asian people to participate in this art form, we’ve got to make sure that how we’re representing them is actually respectful.”

This conversation fits into a larger watershed moment surrounding inclusion and depictions of race in classical ballet. Just last week, two young Black dancers were prevented from performing in a production of Uptown Dance Academy’s “Black Nutcracker” in Harlem because they wore their hair in braids rather than an “unbraided classical ballet bun,” despite such hairstyles being protected under New York state law.

Outside of “The Nutcracker,” works such as “Le Corsaire” and “Raymonda” have also been cited as containing offensive representation, both within and beyond the United States. Earlier this month, American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Misty Copeland posted a photo of two Russian ballerinas in brownface. Copeland, who has recently signed the “Final Bow” pledge, commented on the ongoing use of racist caricature in the Bolshoi Theatre’s performances of “La Bayadère” with the simple caption: “And this is the reality of the ballet world …” The post garnered reactions ranging from outrage to dismissing the incident as lacking international context.

Chan recalled a similar incident in Berkeley, CA., where students were told by the Mariinsky Theater to perform in brownface for a traveling production of “La Bayadère.” The movement was cut from the performance after the Russian company dismissed Berkeley Ballet’s claims of racism and refused to adjust the costumes. “What flies in Russia might not fly in the U.S,” Chan explained. “And this is a perfect example of having to understand the culture and then change a little bit.”

The importance of shedding light on the “The Nutcracker” is amplified by the impact and resonance of the ballet in the United States. When Balanchine’s re-invigorated version of “The Nutcracker” hit the large stage at Lincoln Center in 1964 (10 years after its initial debut at City Center), the spectacle served as a flashpoint that ignited a holiday tradition across the United States. Now, the ballet makes up nearly half of overall season sales for companies surveyed in a recent study, with performances and ticket sales of “The Nutcracker” still trending upward.

“For most American children, it is their entry point into dance,” said Linda Murray, the curator for the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. “So setting the tone right from the beginning, I think, is critical. It has a huge place in popular culture. It defines how we see dance for a large portion of the population. And for that reason, I think the more we can do to make it feel inclusive, the better that we’ll all be.”

Charlotte Nebres in New York City Ballet's production of "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker." Photo: Erin Baiano.
Charlotte Nebres in New York City Ballet’s production of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.” Photo: Erin Baiano.

Those hesitant to change often cite tradition, pointing to the idea that there are other art forms, such as painting and sculpture, that are not pushed to update over time. But as Murray explained, ballet, as an art form passed down through bodies, has a history of adaptation at its core.

“The truth is, Balanchine was always shifting and changing his choreography,” Murray said. “So, yes, there’s a structure and there is an overall sense of the steps that has never changed, but there were also modifications made over the decades for different dancers coming in, or Balanchine deciding that he didn’t like the way something looked anymore and making changes on the fly.”

Murray continued: “So, that’s part and parcel of what it means to work inside the dance field. And because that flexibility exists, I think that then opens up the question of, ‘Why then can’t we make these modifications to make the ballet more relevant to the audience that’s seeing it today?’”

And while updating “Tea” may not change euro-centric depictions in classical ballet across the board, it sets up a framework to evaluate and preserve other movements — both within “The Nutcracker” and beyond.

“There is so much magic in these steps,” Chan said, remarking on how these works provide an important history of ballet that informs how dancers and choreographers move today. “If you look at ‘La Bayadère,’ if you look at ‘Le Corsaire,’ ‘Raymonda,’ there is a structure to them that is so beautiful, and even though they have Orientalist themes, they’re great examples of a classical ballet.”

But in order for this lineage to survive, mused Chan, maintenance is sometimes needed.

“We have this art form that is constantly changing and constantly growing; it constantly feels different,” Chan said. “So there’s a way to keep it alive. And sometimes, the edges get a little hairy; you have to prune it a little bit … to keep it healthy, to keep it retaining its shape of what it’s supposed to be.”

Top Image: New York City Ballet's "The Nutcracker." Photo: Erin Baiano.