Many of us grew up watching some version of the “Nutcracker” ballet at holiday time, thrilled as young heroine Clara traveled to a magical land, where she was treated to a colorful array of dances representing other cultures. These days, some of those dances are being looked at a little more closely to be sure they present a vision that is joyous and fun — and welcoming to all.
Before debuting Pacific Northwest Ballet’s newly designed version of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” in 2015, artistic director Peter Boal had a few concerns about the Chinese Tea variation. As originally staged by Balanchine in 1954, it included “some aspects of the choreography, particularly the pointing of the index fingers and the bobbling of the heads, that felt like traditional Asian stereotyping,” said Boal. “It felt out of place with our audience today.”
Carefully reviewing the costume sketches for PNB’s new production (designed by Ian Falconer), Boal and his team nixed a caricature-like mustache and queue hairstyle on the male dancer. And he rechoreographed some of the movement, specifically eliminating the finger-pointing — a cutesy gesture long seen in many “Nutcracker” productions as shorthand for Chinese, though dance historian Jennifer Fisher notes in her book, “Nutcracker Nation,” that the gesture doesn’t occur in any kind of Chinese dance. (It may, she writes, have its roots in a traditional Mongolian folk dance involving chopsticks.)
Boal filmed the new version and sent it to the Balanchine Trust for approval. (The Trust controls all licensing of Balanchine’s ballets and must approve any new designs or choreographic changes. In a statement, a Trust representative said “The George Balanchine Trust works directly with ballet companies and schools who perform Balanchine’s Nutcracker to address issues where elements in the choreography or production values may be, in the present climate, culturally insensitive.”) Approval was granted, and “I felt much better about what we were to put out on stage,” Boal said.
He’s also been exploring other approaches to the Chinese dance. “We have talked about some ideas, both with Ian Falconer and with the Balanchine Trust. At this point, we haven’t settled on a new direction.” He hopes to continue those talks. Adaptation and adjustment, Boal said, was very much part of Balanchine’s method of working — the choreographer “loved to go into the studio to change and tinker and enhance.” The Balanchine Trust, in a statement, noted that “We cannot speculate on what Balanchine would or would not change, but it is certain that he would want his ballets to bring enjoyment to all audiences.”
Seattle audiences never saw the earlier version of the Chinese Tea variation, and the changes were not announced. But nationally, a conversation over the depiction of people of color in the performing arts was taking place. The organization Final Bow for Yellowface, founded by arts administrator Phil Chan and New York City Ballet dancer Georgina Pazcoguin, was formed in 2017. Later that year, the NYCB — where Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” made its 1954 debut and is still performed annually — made changes to Chinese Tea. Boal, in dialogue with the Balanchine Trust, said he was asked to send a video of PNB’s changes to NYCB’s then-artistic director Peter Martins. Martins reviewed it, Boal said, and “made changes that were similar.”
Chan, in a telephone interview, praised Boal’s actions as “artistically responsible.” PNB’s new “Nutcracker,” he said, came shortly after a 2014 controversy over a production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado” that rocked the Seattle arts community, and it was essential that Boal and the company not make a misstep. Of all the cities where major professional “Nutcracker” productions are staged, Chan said, Seattle has one of the largest Asian populations. “The only way PNB is going to survive is with Asian board members and students and ticket-holders. They can’t get this wrong.” (PNB does, in fact, have several Asian board members, as well as Asian students and ticket-holders.)
Final Bow for Yellowface urges dance companies performing “Nutcracker” to “replace caricature with character.” It asks artists and artistic directors to sign a pledge that reads “I love ballet as an art form, and acknowledge that to achieve a diversity amongst our artists, audiences, donors, students, volunteers, and staff, I am committed to eliminating outdated and offensive stereotypes of Asians (Yellowface) on our stages.” Boal, who has used the organization as a resource, and other key names in the dance world (including choreographers Mark Morris and Christopher Wheeldon) are among the signers.
Chan emphasizes that dance is an ever-changing art, and that making small adaptations for cultural sensitivity means a gain, not a loss. “Our community has to have this conversation and figure this out,” he said, emphasizing that he’s not interested in being “the PC police,” but in helping make “Nutcracker” more enjoyable for everyone. Balanchine’s version, he says, is “so perfect, it’s big enough to be other things, too.” Why not, Chan suggests, have the Chinese variation be dancing panda bears, lions or a monkey king? “It doesn’t have to literally be a Chinese person,” Chan said — “why not something fun from Chinese culture?”
Boal said there may also eventually be some discussions about the sultry Arabian dance, which has raised eyebrows in other productions in its presentation of a female dancer representing an exotic Middle Eastern vamp. He expressed that PNB’s version, in which the dancer wears a costume resembling a peacock (a nod to Kent Stowell and Maurice Sendak), presents a less controversial situation than Chinese Tea. “I think one of the differences was that it wasn’t poking humorous fun at a culture, it was presenting beauty,” said Boal. (Chan said he loved the idea of making her a peacock: “That’s perfect, that’s great! It’s fun.”)
It isn’t just Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” that has raised eyebrows for issues of cultural sensitivity. PNB’s long-running previous “Nutcracker” production, choreographed by Stowell and designed by Sendak, featured three dervishes in the Russian dance who appeared to be in blackface. “We did get some feedback on that, though not a tremendous amount,” said Boal. “There might have been a point where that tide turned.”
And Boal has recently quietly made or requested minor changes, with approval, to three other ballets in PNB’s repertory: Stowell’s “Carmina Burana,” Balanchine’s “Coppélia,” and Jerome Robbins’ “Fanfare.” In each case, Boal said, there were “elements that didn’t feel in sync with where PNB was today, or our Seattle community.”
Likewise, Final Bow for Yellowface has offered assistance to companies around the country, helping with the staging of numerous classic works, from ballets (“Le Chant du Rossignol,” “La Bayadere”) to musicals (“Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Anything Goes”). “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” Chan said. “This is how art stays alive — every generation, you have to keep doing this work, or else it dies.”
It’s work that will continue, said Boal. “We have to look at all of our ballets through other people’s eyes — we have to listen to our audiences when people take offense to what we are presenting. We have to be open to that, and be willing to go into the studio, make changes, have dialogue with a trust or choreographer. Ballet runs the risk of being out of step really quickly, and I don’t think you’re ever done, I don’t think you can ever rest.”
“The Nutcracker,” Pacific Northwest Ballet, Nov. 29-Dec. 28, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $27-$189; 206-441-2424, pnb.org