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Burning Question: Is Nutcracker Racist?
Program director of the professional training programs at Steps on Broadway and the director of Harlem School of the Arts Prep Program.
The whole ballet tradition is inherently racist, so the traditional productions of Nutcracker can also be seen as racist. In many versions of Nutcracker, one sees overt racial stereotypes. In the second-act divertissements, many of the dances or variations are borderline caricatures, if not downright demeaning. For example, the way in which Asians have been portrayed in the Chinese variation—with heads bobbing up and down, index fingers protruding, and happy smirks of joy plastered on the dancers’ faces—is insulting and embarrassing.
But recently, some versions have attempted to portray a more positive image. The San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker has a Chinese divertissement that represents a dragon from Chinatown, which is culturally specific but more importantly, not demeaning. It is not a difficult thing to do but requires a revisionist attitude toward these dances. The same kind of change could be made to the Arabian dance: In many productions, the female dancer is a seductress with navel exposed as she is lifted to and fro from one male partner to another. What does this say to young children watching and dancing in The Nutcracker? I am sure the people of Arab countries do not like to see their women presented in such a manner.
New York Theatre Ballet's Nutcracker by Keith Michael
Several years ago, I was asked to choreograph a Chinese dance to be performed by a reputable ballet school in Connecticut. I again ran into the expectation of caricature. But I choreographed a dance that I felt was not as stereotypical as the previous version, downplaying the Chinese stereotypes and emphasizing substantial choreography and the beautiful Tchaikovsky score. It was well received but was eventually replaced with the original version that I thought was demeaning to Asians.
Examples of how nationalities can be portrayed without stereotyping include Donald Byrd’s excellent 1996 Harlem Nutcracker. Set to David Berger’s version of the Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, the divertissements were drawn from the Harlem Renaissance, celebrating positive images of African Americans. Another is Keith Michael’s one-hour Nutcracker set in Art Nouveau style circa 1907, performed by Diana Byer’s New York Theatre Ballet. It features innovative choreography devoid of all caricatures and stereotypes.
I feel that more Nutcrackers venturing beyond demeaning stereotypes would invigorate and sustain this joyous holiday classic.
Founding artistic director, Richmond Ballet
There’s not one single thing about The Nutcracker that’s racist. In terms of casting, we’ve always cast—this is the 30th season—completely color blind. Beautiful dancers are beautiful dancers.
Last year, with our two Claras and three Sugar Plums, we had a tremendously diverse cast. They each got the part because they were the best for the role. I love that the production looks the way our audience and our community look. And we get a lot of racial diversity through the children in our school.
Richmond Ballet added a dragon to the Chinese dance
Photo by Sarah Ferguson, Courtesy Richmond Ballet
I did our original Nutcracker in 1984, the first full-length performance ever of the professional company. After 19 years the sets and costumes were getting worn so I decided to redo it. I had noticed the children in the audience were so engaged in Act I, but the second act didn’t keep the children’s interest as much. I knew children love animals. I made Act II focus on the animals. For the mirlitons I made a shepherd and shepherdess and six little lambs. In Spanish we have two couples—the guys are toreadors with capes à la Don Q, the women running through, making horns like bulls. In the Russian, we decided to do a dancing bear with two side Russians.
For Chinese I decided I wanted a dragon; it’s something sacred in the Chinese culture. I invited Michael Lowe—he’s Chinese and an Oakland Ballet veteran—to choreograph it. When the dragon came, it had a little shade over its eyes. We had a dragon blessing to take the shade off the eyes. We tried to do all the respectful things.
Artistic director, Spectrum Dance Theater, Seattle
I don’t find The Nutcracker racist. I think it’s Eurocentric in terms of its perspective. You’re being told a story—even when it’s set in America—from the perspective of a traditional 19th-century European household. Anybody that was not European is presented as exotic—the notion of the Other. I would say it’s exclusive rather than racist. It excludes the Other and reserves its experiences for a particular group: Anglo-Europeans. This group is mirrored back to itself onstage in The Nutcracker.
The Harlem Nutcracker that I created had its own form of exclusivity: It was directed at the African American family. The question I asked myself at the time was, How can I include the African American family into the Nutcracker experience? I wanted to make a Nutcracker that reinforces some values that are important to the African American family just as the traditional Nutcracker reinforces values important to Anglo-American families.
A chorus line of snowflakes in Donald Byrd's Harlem Nutcracker
Photo by Gabriel Bienczycki, Courtesy Byrd
As for representation of various racial/ethnic groups in the Nutcracker divertissements, like Spanish Hot Chocolate, Arabian Coffee, and Chinese Tea: At worst, they are insensitive, and at best, irrelevant or indifferent, especially when viewed through a 19th-century imperialist lens. How else should the representation be of a world that exemplifies the privilege of an imperializing Europe, other than indifference to the people and places that provided the commodities that supported their comfort?
Taking it a step further: Think of the Mouse King and his marauding horde as foreign, alien elements that sneak in under cover of night to infiltrate, undermine, and disrupt the order of “the house,” i.e. country, kingdom, Europe. They are vanquished by the Nutcracker/Prince and Clara. In this context, the second act is a vision of European supremacy. The rest of the world and its people are there only to “sweeten” the lives of the dominant Europeans.
What do you think? Send your response to this question—and these points of view—to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Portrait photos from top: Greg Rourt, Courtesy Alexander; Sarah Ferguson, Courtesy Richmond Ballet; Courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music
Sarah Haarmann stands out without trying to. There is a precision and lack of affectation in her dancing that is very Merce Cunningham. Her movement quality is sharp and clear; her stage presence utterly focused. It's no wonder she caught Mark Morris' eye. Even though she still considers herself "very much the new girl" at Mark Morris Dance Group (she became a full-time member in August 2017), in a recent performance of Layla and Majnun, Haarmann seemed completely in her element.
Company: Mark Morris Dance Group
Hometown: Macungie, Pennsylvania
Training: Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts and Marymount Manhattan College
In 2012, freelance contemporary dancer Adrianne Chu made a major career change: She decided to try out for A Chorus Line. "Even though I didn't get the job, I felt like I was meant to do this," says Chu. So she started going to at least one musical theater audition every weekday, treating each as a learning experience. After several years of building up her resumé, Chu's practice paid off: She booked a starring role as Wendy in the first national tour of Finding Neverland.
Approaching auditions as learning opportunities, especially when you're trying to break into a different style or are new to the profession, can sharpen your skills while helping you avoid burnout. It also builds confidence for the auditions that matter most.
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
It's easy to feel whiplashed thinking about everything Emma Portner has achieved in such a short amount of time. Last fall, the 23-year-old was the youngest woman ever to choreograph a West End production (it was based on Meat Loaf's greatest hits). This was, of course, after she already choreographed and starred in Justin Bieber's viral hit "Life is Worth Living," and before she charmed major media outlets when she secretly married actress Ellen Page. Now, she's L.A. Dance Project's first-ever artist in residence, and she's working on a commission for Toronto's Fall for Dance North Festival.
We caught up with her for our "Spotlight" series:
Last month, the International Association of Blacks in Dance's third annual ballet audition for women of color was expanded to include a separate audition for men.
The brainchild of Joan Myers Brown (founder of both Philadanco and IABD), the women's audition was created to specifically address the lack of black females in ballet. However, the success and attention that audition drew made the men feel left out, so IABD decided to give the men equal time this year.
Pina Bausch's unique form of German Tanztheater is known for raising questions. Amid water and soil, barstools and balloons, the late choreographer's work contains a distinct tinge of mystery and confrontation. Today, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch's dancers use questions as fuel for creativity. The company's most recent project introduced a new group of performers to the stage: local high school ninth-graders from the Gesamtschule Barmen in Wuppertal, Germany, in an original work-in-progress performance called Veränderung (Change).
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
I love being transgender. It's an important part of the story of why I choreograph. Although I loved dance from a very young age, I grew up never seeing a single person like me in dance. So how could I imagine a future for myself there?
The enormous barriers I had to overcome weren't internal: I didn't struggle with feelings of dysphoria, and I wasn't locked down by shame.
The dance community is heartbroken to learn that 14-year-olds Jaime Guttenberg and Cara Loughran were among the 17 people killed during the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
Guttenberg was a talented competition dancer at Dance Theatre in Coconut Creek, FL, according to a report from Sun Sentinel. Dance Theatre owner Michelle McGrath Gerlick shared the below message on her Facebook page, encouraging dancers across the country to wear orange ribbons this weekend in honor of Guttenberg, whose favorite color was orange.
A statement released yesterday by New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet reported that an independent investigation was unable to corroborate allegations of harassment and abuse against former ballet master in chief Peter Martins, according to The New York Times. This marks the end of a two-month inquiry jointly launched by the two organizations in December following an anonymous letter detailing instances of harassment and violence.
The statement also included new policies for both the company and school to create safer, more respectful environments for the dancers, including hiring an independent vendor to handle employee complaints anonymously. These changes are being made despite the independent investigation, handled by outside counsel Barbara Hoey, purportedly finding no evidence of abuse.