As the holiday season draws to a close, I have been reflecting on one of my favorite Christmas traditions. For nearly twenty years, my mother and I have seen Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker together every Christmas season, and each year it is almost as wonderful as seeing again it for the first time. From the gentle, iconic music to the beautiful dances to the sweet children running across stage with bouncing angel wigs, every aspect of the story of The Nutcracker exemplifies the magical spirit of Christmas as Clara’s gift comes to life and allows her to visit a fantastic land of sweets. Yet in recent years, I have become increasingly disillusioned with aspects of this beloved ballet.
The ballet opens at a Christmas party with guests from all over the world. The idea of having friends from every country mesmerized me when I was younger, and to see this dream realized on stage was fantastic. During the second half of the ballet, however, these characters appear again not a friends but are largely depicted as exotic and are in the fictional land purely for entertainment value of young Clara and the Nutcracker.
The dances that most heavily rely on stereotyping are the Arabian coffee dance and the Chinese tea dance. The Arabian dancers, wearing harem pants and showing bare midriffs, come slinkily sashaying on the stage with the lead performers clinging together in a highly sexualized position, and the slow, sensual music carries their bodies for the duration of the piece. This is contrasted with the high-pitched, fast paced music of Chinese tea dance that portrays these people as happy, small folks with their fingers pointed straight up and fake pigtails bouncing rapidly in the air. And while these dances are very different, what they share is an ethnocentric and orientalist look at the East that has reduced the dancers to merely caricatures of the cultures they are trying to represent.
What does it mean to attach racist portrayals of certain ethnic groups to a beloved holiday tradition, especially one largely attended by young children and their families? If parents choose to take their children to see The Nutcracker but choose not to talk about the racist portrayals of the cultural groups in the ballet, they cannot be surprised when their child mimics the dancers and unknowingly sticks up their index fingers in the air (just inches away from “slant eye”) when they see an Asian child at school. And for children of color going to theatre and dance, where minority groups are already far-underrepresented, they deserve to see models of themselves on stage, not caricatures of their race.
My local ballet company attempted to ameliorate some of the racial tensions from this ballet by changing the choreography of the Chinese tea dance from having the index fingers pointing in the air to the open palms of the dancers face up. More dramatically, they changed the ethnic group from Chinese with jiangshi hats and fake black braids to Thai dancers in Ram-thai crown headdresses. While there is nothing inherently wrong with having a Thai group represented, the erasure of the Chinese dance replaced by Thai dancers to the exact same music, promotes the idea that Asian bodies and cultures are interchangeable.
More egregious, the male Thai dancer in my local ballet’s rendition of The Nutcracker performed this year in yellowface. His high arched eyebrows, painted eyes, and thick white makeup smeared on his face could be seen from rows away, far more exaggerated than the typical use of stage makeup. Performing race as costume is demeaning and turns the outfit into a joke. Blackface is no longer used or acceptable in theater, and Asians are due that same respect, as well.
While some say that The Nutcracker is a reflection of the imperialistic time it was written, it is my belief that no tradition is so sacred that it cannot be changed if it is doing harm to others. The Chinese and Arabian dances could easily be changed to dances that are inclusive and culturally sensitive instead of the current unilateral, demeaning depictions. In fact, some theaters including the San Fransisco Ballet have already altered the Chinese dance to promote a more respectful image of the Chinese ethnic group. The fact that my local ballet company changed the Chinese dance to a Thai one signifies that they are not concerned with preserving the exact original choreography as written by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov and should be held to the same social accountability for the performance they put on every holiday season.