It’s that time of the year when we start hearing Tchaikovsky’s music from The Nutcracker everywhere we go – in restaurants, in shops, and of course at the theatre. This holiday classic is ubiquitous during the Christmas season so much so that even those who are not frequenters of the ballet are familiar with the tunes.
Most can identify the more cultural musical references that appear in the second act divertissements often reflecting Spanish, Arabian, Russian, and Chinese stereotypes and perceptions even if perhaps not everyone knows that the waltzes they are hearing are associated with flurries of snow and fields of flowers.
As a Chinese American who has been a member of the ballet community for the majority of her life – student, professional dancer, teacher, choreographer, owner of a studio – I have always felt particularly sensitive about the Chinese stereotypes presented in The Nutcracker. And apparently I am not alone.
In fact, New York City Ballet soloist Georgina Pazcoguin and Phil Chan, an arts administrator and former dancer, are encouraging a social and artistic movement revolving around the issues related to the portrayal of Chinese culture on the ballet stage.
Reading more about the “Final Bow for Yellowface” pledge is what inspired me to write this story; the courage and eloquence with which they present what is sensitive matter (many conversations of this nature tend to be) has helped me realize more clearly why I have been uncomfortable with the “Chinese” dance in The Nutcracker for all these years.
I learned that there is discussion to be had in order to inform people the difference between character and caricature – the first can be used to describe cultural features of an individual, a group, or an entire civilization while the latter is an exaggeration of (often) physical features usually in an effort to create a comedic effect.
Therefore, when one uses make-up to paint the face yellow or create an almond-shaped, upward slanting eye shape, this is creating a caricature of a Chinese person rather than sharing anything substantial about the person. So imagine the confusion this caused my newly-hired 17 year-old self when I was cast in “Chinese” and wondered if I, too, needed to do any extra eye make-up as the rest of the cast did. Did I need to make myself more “Chinese”?
I can now acknowledge that I felt a sense of shame about the way I looked due to my ancestry and am angry that I was in a situation that provoked it.