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Dance Companies Pledge To Fight Yellowface In "The Nutcracker"

“The Nutcracker” by Peter Tchaikovsky has long been a staple of the Christmas season.

Tchaikovsky’s music was first performed in 1892 and it was choreographed into a ballet that same year. Since then, companies around the world, including the Nevada Ballet Theatre, have performed it annually around Christmastime.

And for more than a hundred years, it’s gone off without a hitch.

Today, though, dozens of ballet companies around the country are changing or have promised to change one part of the ballet that some say shines a bad light on Asians.

Phil Chan is a New York educator and arts administrator who is leading the effort along with Georgina Pazcoguin, a soloist with the New York City Ballet. 

They are asking leaders in the arts, leaders of dance companies, and dance companies to sign the pledge they're calling Finalbow For Yellowface. So far, hundreds of companies large and small have signed the pledge. 

Chan said yellowface is similar to blackface, which is an inauthentic caricature of black people.

In "The Nutcracker," the Tea Dance is seen as portraying Chinese people in a stereotypical way using makeup and costumes. Chan said dancers will use makeup to look "Asian" in a way they wouldn't have done when dancing a Spanish-style dance for instance.

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In costuming, Chan said the dancers would often wear a rice paddy style hat while others in the production would be dressed in royal wear. 

However, the original choreography wasn't trying to do something stereotypical, Chan explained.

“Their goal wasn’t to do anything offensive. It really was trying to find ways to celebrate other places and show people the diversity of the world around them.”

Since no one traveled much and didn't have a good understanding of other cultures, they tried to portray Chinese people to the audience in a simplified and flattened way. 

Besides the costumes and makeup, the movements of the dance were also stereotypical with a lot of bowing and a finger gesture that dance historians say has no connection to traditional Chinese dance in any way.

Chan said the conversation about making changes to the dance started a year ago when the New York Ballet Theater artistic director talked to him about it. The ballet has started to get an increasing number of letters from audience members and donors asking if the dance could be changed to be more respectful.

Chan decided that if the New York Ballet Theater could talk about making changes perhaps companies around the country could do the same.

“We’re not trying to be the PC police here. We’re not trying to force changes on anybody. Our goal is to start conversations,” he said.

He said "The Nutcracker" is a perfect chance for people to talk about how other cultures are portrayed. 

The Nevada Ballet Theatre's production of The Nutcracker is running through this weekend. The company, which is based in Las Vegas, has not signed the pledge. But the company sent this statement to Nevada Public Radio:

“Nevada Ballet Theatre believes that people of all cultures and races should be appropriately and respectfully represented in the performing arts; and so we support our fellow ballet companies across the U.S. who are making changes to more accurately represent the Chinese Tea Divertissement in their annual productions of The Nutcracker. Nevada Ballet Theatre has been presenting The Nutcracker in Las Vegas for 37 years and our current version has been performed for seven. Like other companies, we wish to celebrate and pay homage, rather than present anything that may be perceived as stereotypical or offensive. Therefore, we have made slight modifications to our own Chinese variation that range from hand gesturing to makeup application. As these conversations evolve, we look forward to participating in future discussions about this important initiative.”

December 26, 2018 - An update on this story: The Nevada Ballet Theatre has signed the “Final Bow For Yellowface” pledge.

Guests

Phil Chan, arts educator and administrator

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