More ‘Nutcracker’ racism

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the ballet The Nutcracker and its use of racial and ethnic stereotypes. I wrote specifically about George Balanchine’s 1954 choreography for the New York City Ballet, the world’s best-known and most influential version of the ballet story, and called for the removal of the offensive racial stereotypes in that production.

Last week, I had a chance to see a brand-new Nutcracker, with choreography and staging that were created in 2010. It was the American Ballet Theatre production, choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky. Ratmansky, the former director of the Bolshoi Ballet, is an award-winning choreographer who has created works for City Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet and the Kirov Ballet, and is currently artist in residence at ABT. His new Nutcracker, though set in the late 1800s or early 1900s, features choreography with modern lines and thankfully beefs up the relationship between Clara and the Nutcracker Prince, making it more complicated than “love at first sight even though we’re nine and you’re dressed like a toy soldier.”

Unfortunately, its approach to race isn’t modern at all. It was hard to believe, watching the Chinese Tea and Arabian Coffee vignettes, that this production was choreographed in 2010. It employed the very same stereotypes as Balanchine’s 1954 production, with Chinese Tea dancers in yellow face, bowing and bobbing and grinning madly. In 1954, it might have been acceptable to choreograph such a thing. And some people might argue that to continue dancing that choreography today honors ballet’s traditions, though I vehemently disagree. But Ratmanksy’s production can’t even fall back on the feeble “tradition” excuse – it was choreographed this year.

Arabian Coffee was, if possible, worse. It featured a bare-chested man in puffy pants and his harem of four women, all of whom were competing for his attention. They fawned over him, begging him to choose them, slinking around the stage in their red and gold silk. Eventually, they grew tired of his indecision and left him alone, which I suppose could be interpreted as a nod to feminism, but for the fact that he chases after them and appears on stage with them at the end.

It’s 2010; there is no excuse for this kind of thing. The belief among dance critics seems to be that classical ballet is currently at risk of dying out. Dance critic Toni Bentley believes that the art form is “facing imminent extinction.” Part of the problem, I think, is that ballet is perceived as less and less relevant to modern life, and nowhere is that more than case than when it employs racial stereotypes that are almost universally acknowledged to be outdated, inaccurate and offensive. If ballet is going to survive – and I want with all my heart for that to happen – it needs to cut this crap out, and soon.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted December 29, 2010 at 5:53 am | Permalink

    I completely agree it has to change. I grew up on “Nutcracker: The Motion Picture,” performed by the Pacific Northwest Ballet with set and costume designs by Maurice Sendak. The Coffee and Tea dances were changed in that 1986 version, with only vague references to Arabian or Chinese representations, to a woman dressed as a bird and a Sendak-designed monster respectively. The Chinese dancers do not appear to be in yellow-face but makeup imitating Peking Opera.

    You can see them here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Z4sott9CPc starting at 1:16. Unfortunately and strangely enough, the Russian dance following was changed to some pan-indigenous interpretation.

  2. Posted December 29, 2010 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    I saw a simulcast of the Bolshoi Ballet’s Nutcracker just before Christmas (part of a series put on by a movie theater chain called ”Ballet in Cinema” and ”Opera in Cinema” to show world class productions and draw new audiences) and though Chinese Tea was still semi-racist, it was not as bad as the Balanchine version. Arabian Coffee was surprisingly well done, with a male and female dancer doing a very lyrical pas de deux and both dressed in costumes that covered them and the choreography emphasized very connected and flowing adage movements by the pair…no ”harem dancing” or turbans. It was quite refreshing.

  3. Posted December 29, 2010 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    I think “getting rid of” racial stereotyping and the remnants of European imperialism and colonialism in classical ballet is going to be extremely difficult. Really, white supremacy and colonialism are *the* ballet traditions. Just calling the variations “Arabian” and “Chinese” is problematic; they would have to be re-named entirely, and this would, in a way, substantially change the ideas and inspirations upon which they’re based. I recall Dance Magazine’s recent race issue reported one Nutcracker choreographer using blue-painted dancers for some of his variations to help change racial meanings, but everyone still understands the underlying exoticization: these Others, who are unlike the lead dancers, are so weird and fun! Even taking other dance forms as “inspirations” is problematic in ballet, where, by and large, choreographers, even progressive ones, are white and male. It’s just hard to have an authentic mixing of cultural styles using a classical framework. Choreographers like Alonzo King can do it, but they’re working far outside classical form and history.

    Most of the popular ballet histories that have been coming out recently (e.g., _Apollo’s Angels_, which places the historical diminution of women up front in the title) continue to hold up the ballet in romantic terms (it’s otherworldly, god-like, ‘naturally’ beautiful, etc.), a view which will always neglect the ways the art is socially constructed and is deeply influenced by social and cultural (white imperialist) history.

    The most feminist “classical” ballet (and it’s not really even strictly classical; it’s not classical in style) I can think of off the top of my head is _The Firebird_, and that still features a woman who’s a bird – but at least she gets free at the end instead of dying.

    • Posted December 31, 2010 at 7:36 am | Permalink

      Sorry, I mean to say, re: the book, it *is* a cultural history itself, but it has a thesis similar to the one you mentioned in your post: It’s lamenting that ballet is “dying out.” How critics get to this idea, I don’t know, because the classical ballets continue to be most companies’ moneymakers. The classics are so entrenched in companies and the public consciousness that it’s the only thing most companies are able to financially support themselves performing. Companies struggle to bring in contemporary (and socially progressive) works, or works which incorporate modern, because audiences won’t pay to see them. ‘The Nutcracker’ is many companies’ big annual moneymaker. So I think the classical form continues to be very entrenched – probably to the detriment of dancers like us who would like to see it progress in a socially responsible direction that acknowledges its race (and gender, and class) problems.

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