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. Perhaps not everyone knows that the waltzes they are hearing are associated with flurries of snow and fields of flowers, but most can identify the more cultural musical references that appear in the second act divertissements often reflecting Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, and Russian perceptions. 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.
Bringing Chinese Stereotypes to Forefront of Conversation
The homepage of the yellowface.org site proudly lists leaders in the dance world as well as those in the broader field of the arts who have already signed the pledge to
“love ballet as an art form, and acknowledge that to achieve a diversity amongst our artists, audiences, donors, students, volunteers, and staff, I am committed to eliminating outdated and offensive stereotypes of Asians (Yellowface) on our stages.”
At first I thought, “How wonderful!”; but my opinion changed when I counted less than two dozen names. To be fair, I suppose that Pazcoguin and Chan vet all the signatures and then determine who are to be considered “leaders”, but it’s still disappointing to think that there aren’t more influential folks who have wanted to associate their names with this effort.* I find the quote by Ballet West‘s Artistic Director to be the most poignant and appreciate the fact that he felt so strongly as to view Willam Christensen’s choreography for “Chinese” insulting. In replacing the original choreography with that of Lew Christensen’s version, he expresses that “Hopefully what we have now is a much greater celebration of Chinese culture than the mockery it used to be.” This is definitely a step in the right direction to address the Chinese stereotypes often displayed.
Every season teaching The Nutcracker to my students, I dreaded having to set the “Chinese” variation. Demonstrating the subservient bowing of the upper body and head while shuffling with index fingers pointing upward filled me with shame and embarrassment. Of course the dancers knew that I, personally, didn’t carry myself in that manner, but was I inadvertently teaching them that this was the way of my ancestors? (For the record, my great grandparents walked with their chins up, shoulders down, and took strides with one foot in front of the other with their arms swinging at their sides.)
It is now more important than ever to maintain that balance of honoring history and tradition while evolving and moving forward as a human race. Dancers have a unique voice; we have the power to tell a story through movement and with that comes a responsibility to tell an accurate one. As a community we have made many headlines over the past few years regarding the significance of diversity in the classroom and on stage. We are making an effort to broaden the definition of “ballet dancer” so that the current and future generations feel no fear to dream as big as they can. We must each continue to use our voice to create more understanding in this beautiful mosaic we live in.
*Be assured that I, too, have pledged; thus this endeavor to spread the word by sharing a bit of my story with you.
Featured Photo for Chinese Stereotypes in Ballet by The Ballet Herald