It’s hard to imagine now, but when The Nutcracker premiered at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater in 1892, it was a dud: Critics complained that the story was boring, the choreography unworthy of Tchaikovsky’s score, the presence of children onstage “unbearable.” But when George Balanchine re-choreographed it for the New York City Ballet (NYCB) in the mid-twentieth century, in a flashy production at Lincoln Center—complete with a massive Christmas tree that grew onstage, an indoor snowstorm, and elaborate costumes by famed designer Barbara Karinska—audiences gave it a second chance.
Now, The Nutcracker is one of the most popular ballets in the world; the story is as much a part of the Christmas canon as Rudolph or Frosty, and many dancers credit The Nutcracker with inspiring their own careers. Nearly every regional company in this country has its own version, many of them based on Balanchine (who drew on Marius Petipa’s original nineteenth-century choreography). Companies rely on The Nutcracker to sustain them for the rest of the year; at NYCB, Nutcracker generates about 40 percent of the annual revenue.
It also traffics in blatant and offensive stereotypes. Dressed in harem pants and a straw hat, eyes painted to look slanted, the white man playing “Chinese Tea” jumps out of a box and bows; two white women, wearing chopsticks in their black wigs, dance with their index fingers pointed in the air. In a dance conceived as “something for the fathers,” a woman portraying “Arabian coffee” slinks around the stage in a belly shirt, bells attached to her ankles. (Choreographers in different genres continue to reinterpret it; in Austin McCormick’s Nutcracker Rouge, “Arabian” is a pole dance.) It’s a beloved Christmas tradition—but parts of The Nutcracker haven’t aged well.
"Chinese" begins at 52:20
This continues throughout Act II, as dancers representing different parts of the world entertain the two young (European) heroes. It hasn’t gone totally unnoticed; Dance Magazine published a short debate on the issue last year, and ballet-goers like Feministing’s Chloe Angyal have criticized the ballet’s ethnocentrism. “I spend large portions of the second act cringing and rolling my eyes, because I’m reminded all over again that this ballet contains some unbelievably offensive racial and ethnic stereotypes,” she wrote.
But even if it rankles some audience members, the issue is not exactly at the forefront of the ballet world. One man who has played “Tea” in New York City Ballet’s production says he doesn’t see the problem with it. “We just kind of do what we’re told,” he says. “That's just the choreography. It’s been like that for years.” That attitude seems pervasive. “It's just a tradition,” a ballerina dancing for a major American company told me. “I don't think it should be questioned.”
But the racial insensitivity of The Nutcracker is symptomatic of a bigger issue. Ballet is, to put it mildly, not a progressive art form. It values conformity: the corps, where every dancer starts, is meant to move as one—and look like one, too. Many directors are reluctant to cast a dancer who looks different from all the others—whether in body type, height or skin tone. Aspiring black ballet dancers are often shunted into another form seen as more accepting—Horton, African, Jazz. Just two years ago, a black ballet dancer told The Guardian she has to hand-dye her own pointe shoes; they don’t come in her color. (By The Guardian’s count, England’s premiere ballet company—the Royal Ballet—had, at that point, one black female dancer in a company of 96.) Misty Copeland—the first black soloist at American Ballet Theater in 20 years—has spoken out about the racism she’s faced throughout her career. “Certain people, they’d come in and cast ballets and wouldn’t even give me the time of day or the chance to see if I was talented enough to portray certain roles,” she told New York earlier this year. Aesha Ash—the only black ballerina at New York City Ballet for several years in the 1990s and early 2000s—has similar stories. The role she became known for was “Coffee.”
Despite this troubling backdrop, and a few objections, The Nutcracker seems to have been given a pass—why?
One argument, of course, is that it seems a bit Grinchy to go after a beloved Christmas tradition. But we don’t hesitate to apply a PC lens to other holiday traditions. We question whether “Rudolph” might promote bullying, and whether “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” normalizes date rape. And in general, Americans are (correctly) critical of costumes and cultural touchstones that stereotype races or nationalities. We curate lists upon lists of racist moments in Disney movies. A few Williams students who dressed up as tacos with moustaches and sombreros were taken to task on blogs and social media. Dear White People tells a believable story of a college campus devolving into riots when white students throw a “blackface” party.
Another argument is that artistic merit justifies The Nutcracker’s insensitivities. “Tchaikovsky never intended his Chinese and Arabian music to be ethnographically correct,” wrote New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay, “but they aren’t examples of cultural imperialism: their extraordinary color and energy are far from condescending, and they make the world of The Nutcracker larger.” Perhaps the longevity of the tradition goes some way toward justifying adherence to its outdated imagery. But it’s less forgivable when contemporary versions—like Alexei Ratmansky’s new production for American Ballet Theater, or Mikko Nissinen’s for Boston Ballet—don’t correct it. (Some, like San Francisco Ballet and Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, have experimented with potentially less offensive representations, like a dragon dance instead of “Tea.”)
And there’s something particularly egregious about stereotypes that not only perpetuate a strictly limited racial vision, but that are actually acted out on stage, with children as their intended audience. Kent Ono, a professor at the University of Utah and the co-author of Asian Americans and the Media, says he can imagine “a Nutcracker that had an ironic or critical interpretation.” But the message of most performances is much more blunt, and anyway, could a kid appreciate that kind of nuance? In the video of the 1993 NYCB production, the camera zooms in on Marie (otherwise known as Clara, the child protagonist of the ballet) sticking out her fingers in imitation of the “Chinese” dancers; it’s just a step away from puling her eyes into a slant. “You want kids to go to The Nutcracker and see themselves on stage, not a caricature of their race,” says Aubrey Lynch, the Director of Dance at the Harlem School of the Arts and a former dancer with Alvin Ailey. “When it comes to race and ethnicity, I think we should be more sensitive.”
Peter Boal, the Artistic Director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, will stage Balanchine’s Nutcracker for the first time next year, and he says he’ll consider adapting the steps to suit modern sensibilities. “There’s a possibility of changes and alterations to make sure it’s not offensive,” he says. “Balanchine would not want a piece that was offending anyone.”
“It’s crying out to be reinvented,” says Lynch. “The person who does it will be a hero.”