The Louisville Ballet studios are bustling this week as the company prepares for their 2018 production of “The Nutcracker,” which premieres next Saturday.
Dancers work through Act II of the production, over and over; it’s the part of the show during which Marie and her Prince enter “The Land of Sweets” and are greeted by a familiar cast of characters: The Sugar Plum Fairy, Candy Canes, Spanish Hot Chocolate, Arabian Coffee.
And the Chinese Tea Dancers.
That particular segment of “The Nutcracker” has received a lot of attention since last year when the New York City Ballet redesigned the choreography, costumes and makeup in their version of the classic ballet — veering away from the antiquated caricatures often depicted in the scene.
Many companies, even those that are internationally renowned, like the New York City Ballet, would present Asian stereotypes year after year. Male dancers moved with pointy fingers and wore rice paddy hats; the women wore geisha-style wigs and exaggerated eye makeup.
Now, through a campaign called “Final Bow for Yellowface,” companies all across the U.S. are pledging to rethink how they depict Asians on their stages.
But local audiences won’t see any major changes to “The Nutcracker” this year — because the Louisville Ballet’s version already saw a redo in 2009, when the choreography was reworked by Val Caniparoli.
According to Louisville Ballet Executive Director Robert Curran, he signed the “Final Bow for Yellowface” petition after being approached by Phil Chan, one of the campaign’s organizers. Curran said at the time, Chan expressed admiration for the Louisville Ballet’s version of the “Chinese Tea Dance.”
“Phil reached out, had a look at our ‘Nutcracker,’ and gave us the thumbs up on our Chinese divertissement,” Curran said. “He asked me if I would be interested in signing the petition.”
Curran said he believes that being aware of these kinds of cultural appropriation is important.
“I think we as a race have failed in that on a lot of fronts,” Curran said. “I want to make sure that I have access to as many resources like Phil who can help me, guide me through issues.”
Chan, a former professional dancer and arts educator based in New York, launched the effort with New York City Ballet dancer Georgina Pazcoguin. He said he wanted to create the “Final Bow for Yellowface” petition and resource center not just to inspire big ballet companies like the New York City Ballet, but for smaller organizations in “middle America” where there aren’t necessarily large Asian populations.
“I’m biracial, so my family is also white,” Chan said. “They live in rural Ohio, so their only exposure to Chinese culture, besides me, is a crappy Chinese restaurant and the Nutcracker. So not that many authentic, celebratory representations.”
And, Chan said, these caricatured depictions have real-world consequences, like dehumanizing people of different races.
“Similar to how black face was used to portray African-Americans in a specific light, in order to be able to maybe get away with doing things to them that were less than human,” he said.
But if you’ve seen the Louisville Ballet’s version of the Nutcracker recently, you’ll see why Chan was a fan. The Chinese Tea dance exudes both power and playfulness.
“[Chan] thought the Chinese dragons we use are very appropriate,” Curran said. “Not used gratuitously or inappropriately and he was pleased with what we had done. There are a lot of versions that are very beautiful and respectful of the Chinese tradition.”
And Louisville audiences can be assured they are seeing one of them.