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As ‘Nutcracker’ Returns, Companies Rethink Depictions of Asians

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A new character is featured in the Land of Sweets in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Nutcracker” this year: Green Tea Cricket, a springy, superhero-like figure meant to counter stereotypes of Chinese culture.

Tulsa Ballet, hoping to dispel outdated portrayals of Asians, is infusing its production with elements of martial arts, choreographed by a Chinese-born dancer.

And Boston Ballet is staging a new spectacle: a pas de deux inspired by traditional Chinese ribbon dancing.

“The Nutcracker,” the classic holiday ballet, is back after the long pandemic shutdown. But many dance companies are reworking the show this year partly in response to a wave of anti-Asian hate that intensified during the pandemic, and a broader reckoning over racial discrimination.

“Everybody learned a lot this year, and I just want to make sure there’s absolutely nothing that could ever be considered as insulting to Chinese culture,” said Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of Boston Ballet, who choreographed the ribbon dance. “We look at everything through the lens of diversity, equity and inclusion. That’s the way of the future.”

Ao Wang performs the ribbon dance, which Mikko Nissinen added to the Boston Ballet’s “Nutcracker.” Credit…Liza Voll, via Boston Ballet

Artistic leaders are jettisoning elements like bamboo hats and pointy finger movements, which are often on display during the so-called Tea scene in the second act, when dancers perform a short routine introducing tea from China. (It’s one in a series of national dances, including Hot Chocolate from Spain and Coffee from Arabia.)

At least one company, the Berlin State Ballet, has decided to forgo “Nutcracker” entirely this year amid growing concern about racist portrayals of Asians. The company said in a statement last week that it was considering ways to “re-contextualize” the ballet and would eventually bring it back.

The changes are the result of a yearslong effort by performers and activists to draw attention to Asian stereotypes in “Nutcracker.” Some renowned groups — including New York City Ballet and the Royal Ballet in London — several years ago made adjustments to the Tea scene, eliminating elements like Fu Manchu-type mustaches for male dancers.

The sharp rise in reports of anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic, as well as a recent focus on the legacy of discrimination in dance, opera and classical music, have brought fresh urgency to the effort.

Performers and activists have called on cultural institutions to feature more prominently Asian singers, dancers, choreographers and composers. Some opera companies are re-examining staples of the repertoire like “Madama Butterfly” and “Turandot,” which contain racist caricatures. Others, such as Boston Lyric Opera, are hosting public discussions of the works and their stereotypes.

“Folks are finally connecting the dots between the idea that what we put onstage actually has an impact on the people offstage,” said Phil Chan, an arts administrator and former dancer who has led the push to rethink “The Nutcracker.”

In 2018, Chan began circulating a pledge titled “Final Bow for Yellowface,” which calls for eliminating outdated and offensive stereotypes in ballet. He has gathered about 1,000 signatures from dancers, choreographers, educators and administrators.

The move to excise racist elements in dance has not been without controversy, especially in Europe.

Annie Au, center, a traditional Chinese dance specialist, works with Alice Kawalek, left, and Kayla-Maree Tarantolo for the Scottish Ballet’s production.Credit…Andy Ross

Scottish Ballet this year eliminated caricatures like head-bobbing and ponytails from its “Nutcracker.” The production also breaks with tradition by having both male and female dancers play the role of the magician Drosselmeyer.

“We ended up in a place where we can celebrate what we’re putting onstage rather than trying to defend it,” said Christopher Hampson, artistic director of the Scottish Ballet.

But some observers were not happy.

“In what way is it racist to portray a culture’s most recognizable attributes?” said a commentary about the new production, which aired in November on Russian state television. “In 2021, not even ballet is safe from the P.C. police.”

The decision by the Berlin State Ballet to skip “Nutcracker” this year angered some cultural critics, who cited concerns about freedom of expression.

“People are not stupid,” Roger Köppel, a former editor of Die Welt, a German newspaper, said in an email. “They can think for themselves and do not have to be shielded and protected from art that is declared politically incorrect by people who want to force their worldview on all of us.”

The stakes are high. For many ballet companies, “The Nutcracker” is the biggest show of the year — a financial lifeline that generates a large percentage of annual ticket sales.

Dancers and artistic leaders said that reimagining “Nutcracker” was essential to attracting diverse audiences. But some said there was still room for improvement.

KJ Takahashi, a City Ballet dancer who stars in the Tea scene in this year’s “Nutcracker,” which opened the day after Thanksgiving, said he welcomed the changes. Takahashi, who is Japanese American, said the revisions made him feel more included. Still, he said, there was more that could be done, noting that he finds the costumes dated and inauthentic.

“The little things make a big difference,” he said. “We can go even deeper into accuracy.”

Colorado Ballet staged a “Nutcracker” this month with new costumes, including in the Tea scene. Rather than traditional red and gold attire, dancers are dressed in a variety of colors. A dragon that appears onstage is covered in images of Asian street food.

Some companies are reworking the Tea scene entirely, believing more can be done to make it resonate with modern audiences.

Peter Boal, artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, has been experimenting with ways to tone down Asian stereotypes in its “Nutcracker” since 2015. But as Boal saw the rise of anti-Asian hate this year, he set out to make further changes in time for opening night, on Nov. 26.

He had long wanted to add a cricket, a symbol of good luck in China, to “Nutcracker.” He gained permission from the Balanchine Trust, which owns the rights to the version the company performs, just a few weeks ago. (The trust had found early sketches too buglike, Boal said.)

During the visit to the Land of Sweets, the cricket now emerges from a box rolled onstage and performs a series of acrobatic moves, much like the choreography in the original, in which a man dressed in stereotypical Chinese clothes came out of the box.

“The importance of change really came home this year,” Boal said, noting the spread of anti-Asian hate. He said he wanted a production that was “in line with our sensibilities today and our respect for other people and audience members and the community.”

Smaller dance groups are making changes as well.

At Butler University in Indianapolis, professors and students found themselves increasingly uncomfortable with the national dances, which they felt reduced cultures to caricatures. This year, they have renamed the Tea scene “Dragon Beard Candy,” after a favorite Chinese sweet. The choreography for the scene was partly inspired by the Monkey King, a mythical animal warrior in Chinese classical literature.

“There could be a chance that you’re not concerned with these issues because you don’t have to be,” said Ramon Flowers, an assistant professor at Butler who is choreographing parts of the production. “But by highlighting and putting this out there as often as possible, we can inspire change.”

Dancers and choreographers of Asian descent say the revisions to “Nutcracker” are long overdue.

Ma Cong, resident choreographer of Tulsa Ballet, said he was confused when he first saw “Nutcracker” productions featuring exaggerated makeup and stereotypical costumes. Ma, who grew up in China, recalled thinking, “That is not Chinese.”

Tulsa Ballet will premiere a production of “The Nutcracker” on Dec. 10 choreographed by Ma and Val Caniparoli. For the Tea scene, Ma is incorporating elements of tai chi and classical Chinese dance.

Ma said the rise in anti-Asian violence and the spread of terms like “China virus” had emboldened him to bring more elements of Chinese culture to the production.

“It’s one simple word: respect,” he said. “It’s truly important to have respect for all cultures, and to be as authentic as possible.”

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