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Twin Cities ballet companies crack open stereotypes in ‘Nutcracker’

The movement to end “yellowface” in productions of “The Nutcracker” has started to gain momentum in the Twin Cities, and ballet companies are reworking the classic holiday piece without racial stereotypes and cultural appropriations.

Twin Cities Ballet of Minnesota (TCB), which has done a Minnesota-themed “Nutcracker” since 2015 complete with backdrops of places like Rice Park and Landmark Center, is now reimagining its Act II “divertissements” (dance sections that don’t further the plot). Among them is the “Tea” dance, which traditionally has adopted outdated portrayals of Asians.

“There was actual yellowface,” said Rick Vogt, TCB’s associate artistic director, of the ballet’s history. “People would put on exaggerated makeup to look like what they envisioned a Chinese or Asian person to look like.”

He said TCB has never done that but it’s moving even farther away from tying the dance to any kind of ethnic identification by pushing a Minnesota theme in that section. The company is replacing the “Tea” dance with a mosquito one, to jokingly refer to Minnesota’s state bird.

The move gives a nod to Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet, which decided to do away with the male dancer’s yellowface and conical straw hat in the Chinese “Tea” dance when it acquired George Balanchine’s 1950s version in 2015. In 2021, it replaced the male dancer with a character, the Green Tea Cricket, in response to the Final Bow for Yellowface movement that was started by arts administrator Phil Chan. He approved the introduction of the cricket, which is considered to be lucky in Chinese culture. Final Bow has worked with ballet companies across the country to eliminate offensive stereotypes of Asians.

In his book titled “Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing Between Intention and Impact,” Chan writes of the historical origins of “Nutcracker’s” racism, particularly in the divertissements created by the original choreographer, Marius Pepita,who gave each dance portraying different countries food names. The Spanish dance was called “Chocolate” and the Arabian one “Coffee.”

A loaded gesture

Historically in the “Tea” dance, productions had dancers sporting Fu Manchu-style facial hair and cartoonish costumes, and used gestures that pigeonhole Asian characters in a clownish fashion.

In the Twin Cities, Bloomington’s Continental Ballet Company wanted to be sensitive toward cultural stereotypes and did away with the finger-pointing gesture about four years ago and replaced the straw hats with paper flowers.

The finger-pointing gesture had always bothered dancer Sarah Jordan, who will be the Snow Queen in this month’s “Loyce Houlton’s Nutcracker Fantasy” by Minnesota Dance Theatre, in Minneapolis. “That gesture appears nowhere in Asian culture or in art,” she said. “It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t have a purpose.”

Adopted from China as a baby, she was exposed to her cultural heritage through traditional dance, and learned very specific hand gestures that have a meaning and intention behind them. And finger-pointing isn’t part of that tradition.

As a young ballerina, Jordan never wanted to be cast in the “Tea” dance. At the same time, it bothered her to see white dancers dress up in exaggerated makeup to look Chinese.

“That definitely didn’t sit with me super great,” she said.

Jordan sees a lack of education and/or exposure as the cause for the offensive portrayals of Asians. Early choreographers and Tchaikovsky himself “didn’t have the experience to really be able to accurately portray that culture,” she said.

Embracing change

Minnesota Dance Theatre’s production, which was first choreographed in 1964, introduced significant adjustments in its second act last year. Kaitlyn Gilliland,Houlton’s granddaughter and associate artistic director of the company, said the changes were made in response to the movement to change cultural stereotypes in “Nutcracker” productions nationwide. Gilliland said her mother, Lise Houlton, MDT’s artistic director, is an admirer of Chan and has been following his “Final Bow” movement closely.

“We had really been paying attention to the national conversation about removing cultural misrepresentation from the second act divertissements in the ‘Nutcracker,'” Gilliland said.

MDT has rebuilt the “Tea” dance into one that features four of Marie’s friends from the first act to be part of her dream. But in the second act, they come back and dance in the young heroine’s dream as sophisticated and elegant grownups.

The Houltons have adjusted costumes and props, and removed stereotyping gestures. “And we have also made an effort to more clearly link these dances and these dancers to some of their first-act roles or their appearances in the living room scene,” she said.

In St. Paul, the St. Paul Ballet took a completely different approach last weekend in its “Best of Nutcracker.” Instead of a full-length story, the company featured sections from various choreographers. It also removed the “Tea” dance…

Read More: Twin Cities ballet companies crack open stereotypes in ‘Nutcracker’

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