The Nutcracker, a beloved seasonal ballet treasured by dance studios and companies all across the world, has been a topic of criticism concerning the portrayal of different cultures and races. The Nutcracker has deep significance in the ballet world. As each December approaches, the one thing on most ballet dancers’ minds is The Nutcracker. Not only does it hold deep significance, marking the Holiday Season, but it is often regarded as a tradition to put on a production of this ballet.
The story of the first act of The Nutcracker follows a young girl named Clara as she finds herself sucked into a magical world after a treacherous battle with an army of mice on the night of Christmas eve. She is guided by the animated Nutcracker, gifted to her by a mysterious relative, Lord Drosselmire, during the Christmas party that took place earlier that night. In this allusive new world, she first encounters a blizzard and is greeted by the Snow King and Queen. The couple directs her to the Kingdom of Sweets, where its inhabitants anxiously await her arrival. The second act picks up where the story left off: Clara arriving at the Kingdom of Sweets. The Sugar Plum Fairy welcomes her and introduces her to those who will be performing for Clara. Some of these performers include Russian Candy Canes, Spanish Chocolate, Chinese Tea, and Arabian Coffee.
Recently, the depictions of these different characters and their cultures have been the subject of scrutiny. Since this ballet dates back to nearly a century and a half ago, several of these portrayals of ethnically diverse peoples are dated and are now seen as offensive. The role of Chinese tea is often played by a Caucasian person dressed up in stereotypical Chinese clothing with their eyes adorned with angular makeup. The term, “yellowface,” best describes this act of putting on makeup and clothes to appear as if one is of Eastern Asian descent. As described in an article published by The Guardian, “[The] tea scene has no real significance for the narrative, standing as an isolated hangover from a bygone era of trade, colonialism and cultural misunderstanding, repeated from [the] original choreography in most interpretations since.” Those who perform as the Arabian Coffee wear revealing clothing, draped with translucent, multi-colored fabrics. This overly-sexualized depiction of Arabian culture has been another cause for the outcry against the depiction of these cultures. It has also been said that even though the ballet originated in Russia, the Russian Candy Canes are problematic and insulting since they are often portrayed as the cliché Russian, wearing layers of fur offset with bright red clothes. Each of these pieces plays into the stereotypes of each culture it is trying to represent, only exemplifying the issue of the culturally appropriating nature of the second act of the Nutcracker.
The industry of dance, specifically ballet, is no stranger to this form of controversy. Since many ballets were choreographed hundreds of years ago, the line discerning cultural appreciation from appropriation is often blurred and obscured. Since this point of view does not conform to the perspective adopted by the general public, the topic of the portrayal of cultures has been much-debated. For instance, in the Russian ballet company, the Bolshoi Theater’s, production of La Bayadere, a ballet that takes place in India, two dancers performing in this production posted a picture on Instagram showing off their costumes. This costume featured the dancers wearing brown makeup in an attempt to appear as Indian. This post was extremely controversial and was a hot topic of conversation in the ballet industry. One of the most prominent dancers in the industry, Misty Copeland, took to social media to present her standing on this long-standing issue. She is famous for being the first African-American Principal Dancer in one of the most prominent American ballet companies: the American Ballet Theater (also known as ABT), making her a figurehead in the push to make the world of ballet a more inclusive environment. In her post(s) published in late 2019 concerning this blackface scandal, she denounced the practice of wearing darker makeup to appear as a different race. “…[T]his is the reality of the ballet world,” she stated.
Nevertheless, many ballet companies, such as the Paris Opera Ballet, are working to eliminate this disrespectful practice of blackface and exercises similar to it. For instance, the artistic director of the Los Angeles Dance Project and the former director of the Paris Opera Ballet, Benjamin Millepied, made several arguments against the use of blackface in ballet productions. His efforts were successful, eliminating the practice of blackface at the Paris Opera Ballet. Despite the encouragement gained from these figureheads in the dance industry, there has been a significant amount of pushback. Some complain that abandoning the practices seen in La Bayadere and The Nutcracker is the equivalent of abandoning tradition. As stated by Nikolai Tsiskaridze, a dancer for Bolshoi for over 20 years, in an interview with Izvestia, a Russian newspaper in response to Copeland’s aforementioned statement and as recorded in an article published by the New York times, “Russian ballet should not be guided by what an artist wrote on the other side of the world… This is our culture.” As previously mentioned, Benjamin Millepied was able to do away with the use of blackface in ballet productions by the Paris Opera Ballet. While this was a success, he received a great amount of backlash. Similar to Tsiskadrize’s response to the outcry resulting from the photo posted by the two Bolshoi dancers, this was seen as a grave offense, insulting balletic tradition. This reaction became so intense that Millepied cites this event as one of the reasons why he decided to leave his position as the director of the Paris Opera Ballet.
These beliefs concerning the use of blackface and other similar actions that are interpreted as racially and culturally insulting can be applied to The Nutcracker. While the portrayal of cultures is interpreted as insensitive and insulting as seen from a more modern perspective, many people look at the original choreography and see it as yet another tradition. It has been theorized that the reason why these characterizations of these cultures have persisted for so long is due to the fact that when the ballet was originally choreographed in the late 19th century, traveling to distant lands and interacting with new cultures was hardly possible. As a result, individuals belonging to lower classes could feel as if they interacted with the cultures they saw interpreted on stage. While the original intentions may have been good, there are undeniable undertones of insensitivity. This fact has not aged well and has become an uncomfortable reminder of former times, persisting for nearly a century.
While these issues concerning culture and race are as controversial as ever, several professional ballet companies all across the world are making an effort to adjust their productions of The Nutcracker to create a more culturally flattering performance. For example, as described in the previously mentioned article published by The Guardian, the Australian Ballet has recently revised its production of The Nutcracker in order to “tone down the yellowface.” Several other professional companies, such as the aforementioned New York City Ballet, have begun reinterpreting the choreography and costumes of The Nutcracker to suit a more modern palate while painting cultures in a more accepting and appreciative light, setting a precedent for other studios and companies to follow. It is the hope that the adjustments made to the Nutcracker will become a source of appreciation for these different cultures, becoming a celebration of the diversity seen in the ballet and real world.
The Nutcracker is just one example of the increasing cultural awareness in the dance industry. As ballet productions, including but not limited to The Nutcracker, become more culturally aware, ballet will become, as stated by Millepied, “a celebration of human diversity and movement.”