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.