Wayne Brennan in Willam Christensen's Nutcracker in 1955. Courtesy Ballet West

Context Over Cancel Culture: What Companies Can Do With Problematic Nutcracker Footage

With most live Nutcracker performances canceled this year, many companies are planning to present footage of past productions digitally instead. But for some, there's a snag: The video is from a few years ago, and the second act might come across as racist. Now what? How can companies still provide digital access for their communities to the beloved ballet—the one that attracts the most audience members all year—while not offending folks during the holiday season?


As co-founder of Final Bow for Yellowface, which works to improve how we represent Asians on the ballet stage, here are a few suggestions I've given to company directors:

1. Acknowledge what is problematic, and the impact of racial caricature: It's okay to say: "This work comes from a different time, we don't present 'Chinese' like this anymore." Acknowledge the impact on Asian people, and how historically these caricatured representations have been barriers for Asian Americans to feel fully included in the dance community.

2. Encourage conversation: The second act of The Nutcracker is a great opportunity to discuss the many issues that ballet companies face when trying to keep tradition alive while expanding beyond an exclusively Eurocentric point of view. Work with your education department, if you have one, to come up with thoughtful questions that can lead to constructive and respectful conversations. Discussions should deepen an audience member's understanding of the ballet itself as well as the racial dynamics at play. This can take the form of social media content, preshow talks, program notes, curtain speeches or a complementary educational curriculum.

3. Demonstrate how you are doing better: Include photos, sketches or clips from updated productions, and highlight less visible areas where your organization is addressing diversity, equity and inclusion, like staffing and board recruitment, student and family outreach, or efforts to decolonize your curriculum. Lead by example.

Considering how few opportunities are given to Asian choreographers to provide authentic representation, ballet companies must do better if we want Asians in our audiences, our schools, our donor databases and our board meetings. My biggest fear is that companies will just present outdated Nutcrackers without thinking too much, eschewing uncomfortable conversations and hoping no one will notice. This would be beyond irresponsible at a time when internet streaming allows us to reach a much larger audience and bring new people into ballet. Showing an outdated Nutcracker without context will give a first impression that our world is backwards and racist, and therefore not worthy of further investment. With ballet companies already on the ropes due to the pandemic, we can't afford to lose potential audience members or donors if we want this art form to survive and be relevant for all Americans living today.

For more tools on how to lead conversations around race and The Nutcracker, visit yellowface.org.


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July 2021