Hansuke Yamamoto in Helgi Tomasson's Nutcracker at San Francisco Ballet, which features an exciting and respectful Chinese divertissement. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

A Fresh Cup of Tea: How to Make Nutcracker More Inclusive

It's Nutcracker time again: the season of sweet delights and a sparkling good time—if we're able to ignore the sour taste left behind by the outdated racial stereotypes so often portrayed in the second act.

In 2017, as a result of a growing list of letters from audience members, to New York City Ballet's ballet master in chief Peter Martins reached out to us asking for assistance on how to modify the elements of Chinese caricature in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. Following that conversation, we founded the Final Bow for Yellowface pledge that states, "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a diversity amongst our artists, audiences, donors, students, volunteers, and staff, I am committed to eliminating outdated and offensive stereotypes of Asians (Yellowface) on our stages."


Our pledge served to consolidate many conversations already happening on the ground across the country around how to represent Asians in The Nutcracker and other classical works. We are thrilled to have the support of almost every artistic leader from the major American ballet companies.

Since our Yellowface pledge went public last year, we've received hundreds of letters from Asian-American students, parents, teachers, and both professional and retired dancers talking about how caricatured "Chinese" dances in The Nutcracker have always bothered them. The most common question we've received is, How do we start this dialogue at our own studio/company to make our Nutcracker more inclusive?

We've discovered three areas in the divertissement where creative questioning can help productions become more respectful to Chinese culture, while remaining faithful to the artistic visions of the past.

Makeup and Casting: Why the Yellowface?

In 2019, do we really need makeup that exaggerates Asian racial features for audiences to get that this dance is "Chinese"? An easy option to avoid caricature is to keep makeup designs clean and simple, bringing out colors from the costume and accentuating the natural features of the dancer regardless of their race.

It seems reasonable to assert that an audience in 2019 doesn't need painted elongated eyes or a Fu Manchu mustache to get that this divertissement is "Chinese."

If you want to lean into Chinese culture, consider borrowing a design from Peking Opera, a rich theatrical tradition in China where different colors in the masks represent different character traits. Ballet West's current version of the divertissement features a Peking Opera-inspired warrior battling a playful Chinese dragon.

Directors should also not feed the pressure to cast Asian (or Asian-passing) dancers in the "Chinese" divertissement just because they are Asian. Regardless of race, cast the dancer who performs the choreography the best, and most embodies the spirit of the dance. Sometimes that will be an Asian dancer, and that's okay too!

Wayne Brennan in 1955. Courtesy Ballet West

Choreography: What's with "The Fingers"?

Certain physical caricatures of Asians by Westerners have persisted across film, vaudeville and the performing arts throughout history. When translated to the stage, the Chinese tradition of bound feet became small shuffling steps, while the humble bow gesture became an exaggerated head bobbing, and in classical ballet, the two raised index fingers.

At one time, these movements may have been attempts at imagined Chinese character dance, but they've warped into physical caricature meant to create a comic, simplistic or grotesque impression.

We've come across two theories about "the fingers." One idea is that the gesture is based on a chopstick dance, and that the individual digits represent chopsticks. The other is that porcelain makers at the turn of the 19th century wanted to show their virtuosity as artists, and would create porcelain figurines ("China") with the people depicted holding up individual delicate fingers, something quite hard to do.

As "Nutcracker Nation" author Jennifer Fisher wrote last year, "One of the most common of the ballet world's efforts to signal Chinese-ness is a particular hand gesture—a sort of two-finger salute with the index digits of each hand stretched out to opposite sides like a peripheral vision test. Any Nutcracker aficionado will recognize it as 'Chinese,' but as a dance scholar, I can tell you the gesture does not exist in any version of traditional dance in China…The finger-pointing is mostly an example of heedless insensitivity to stereotyping."

If your production features unnecessarily caricatured mannerisms, consider going back to the music to find inspiration. Is anything truly lost if the hand gestures are altered slightly or a little bit of head bobbing is removed? What are other spritely and playful ballet steps are suggested by the different layers of music that can be celebratory for everyone?

Costuming: How to Represent "Chinese"

A few different wardrobe approaches are possible. You can lean in and make costuming historically accurate, and be inspired by Chinese fashion. However, bear in mind that while a Chinese person depicted as a railroad worker or rice farmer ("chinaman" or "coolie") might be historically accurate, it is a caricature that Asian people are trying to move away from. Could the same choreography be performed by Chinese princes and princesses? What about leaning into the confection angle and have dancing Fortune Cookies?

You can also lean out of anything Chinese whatsoever; the National Ballet of Canada's production choreographed by James Kuldelka to the "Chinese" divertissement features dancing chefs chasing a turkey.

Animals are also a lot of fun and a great combo approach. Pacific Northwest Ballet's Arabian variation features George Balanchine's choreography but is danced by a peacock instead of a harem dancer. A lot of successful "Chinese" divertissements we've seen include dragons, pandas, Chinese lions and other animals associated with Chinese culture.

Pruning to Preserve

Ultimately we want to make sure the ballet community actively engages in these sometimes challenging conversations surrounding race and representation by continuing to examine the choices we present on stage, in order to better preserve these pieces as living works of art. This process of understanding the history of both the ballet itself, as well the complex histories of different racial groups in our communities, is the key to making both the creative work and our community overall more inclusive.

We like to think of the true ballet masterpieces like Japanese bonsai trees; if we want them to live and keep their shape, they sometimes require a little delicate pruning. Changing a little bit of head bobbing to avoid perpetuating Chinese stereotypes does go a long way with audiences; modifying make-up just a little bit to avoid caricature doesn't make the work any less charming. Small updates to refresh portrayals of race ensure that classic works like The Nutcracker stay alive and become bigger than what their creators intended.

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"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."

Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.

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Dance Magazine Chairman's Award Honoree: Linda Shelton

In an industry that has been clamoring for more female leadership, Linda Shelton, executive director of New York City's The Joyce Theater Foundation since 1993, has been setting an example for decades. As a former general manager of The Joffrey Ballet, U.S. tour manager for the Bolshoi Ballet, National Endowment for the Arts panelist, Dance/NYC board member and Benois de la Danse judge, as well as a current Dance/USA board member, Shelton has served as a global leader in dance. In her tenure at The Joyce, she has not only increased the venue's commissioned programming, but also started presenting beyond The Joyce's walls in locations such as Lincoln Center.

What brought you to The Joyce?

That was many years ago, but it's still the same today: It's a belief in and passion for the mission of the theater, which is to support dance in all of its forms and varieties—every kind of dance that you could imagine.

Diversity is so important in dance leadership today. How do you approach this at The Joyce?

Darren Walker said something interesting at a Dance/NYC Symposium, which was that The Joyce is a disruptor. It was nice to hear in that context, because we don't think of it as something new. We didn't have to change our mission statement to be more diverse. We've been doing this since day one.

Is drawing in new audiences and maintaining longtime supporters ever in conflict?

Of course. I call it the blessing and the curse of our mission. We do present more experimental companies that may attract a younger audience. But it's very tricky. You're not going to tell your long-term audience, "Don't come and see this because you're not going to like the music." We've had people walk out of the theater before, but it's a response. It's important to spark those conversations.

What experimenting have you done?

We've tried a "pay what you decide" ticket the past couple of seasons with some of our more adventurous programming. You would reserve your seat for a dollar and after seeing the show pay what you decide is right for you.

Do you have advice for other dance presenters?

Find opportunities to sit with colleagues from around the country. At Dance/USA there's a presenters' council where we come together and talk about what we're putting in our seasons and what we're passionate about. Maybe there are enough presenters to collaborate and make it possible to bring a company to New York or to do a tour around the country.

Also, remember what it's all about: making that connection between what's onstage and the audience. If we can do that, despite every visa issue and missed flight and injury and changed program and whatever else comes our way, then we should feel good about the job we're doing.

To purchase tickets to the Dance Magazine Awards or become a sponsor, visit dancemediafoundation.org.

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