Dancing on Thin Ice

This winter, I was fortunate enough to perform in Andover’s production of “The Nutcracker,” taking on a trifecta of roles as a Flower, Mirliton, and Snow Queen. There’s something truly magical about the show, and it’s no surprise that “The Nutcracker” is one of the most popular ballets in the world, generating a large portion of most ballet companies’ annual revenue and attracting audiences of all ages, children and adults alike. But perhaps precisely because of its timeless popularity, I’ve noticed that many audience members unwittingly overlook what in many other circumstances might be considered unacceptable: blatant racial and ethnic stereotyping.

While the ballet is meant to portray a seemingly innocent story — that of Clara, the young protagonist, as she journeys into the magical “Land of Sweets” where a series of “ethnic” dances are performed in her honor — some of the performances are borderline caricatures, if not downright demeaning ethnic characterizations.

In the New York City Ballet version, for example, a man donning a straw hat, a long black braid, and eyes painted to look slanted, jumps out of a box while two women with black wigs fawningly bow to him and meekly shuffle around the stage. With their heads bobbing, index fingers protruding, and inanimate smirks plastered on their faces, these “Chinese Tea” dancers only perpetuate the classic Asian stereotype: an ‘Oriental’ caricature that is disingenuous and outright offensive.

The “Arabian Coffee” scene is arguably even more problematic. In Boston Ballet’s production, a male dancer rushes onstage in wispy, multi-colored harem pants. Shortly thereafter, he makes two dramatic claps, summoning his seductress partner onto stage in an overtly dominant way. A female soloist emerges from the wings in a jewelled, midriff-baring top and hair covered in a quasi-turban headpiece as she slinks seductively, albeit submissively, towards her partner.

This portrayal of Arabs — while perhaps “alluring” or “intriguing” — reinforces a highly-stylized image of the ‘mysterious Middle East’ which owes its origin as much to Hollywood fabrication as to any true Middle Eastern culture. In fact, this sultry “Arabian” dance is quite the antithesis of Middle Eastern tradition, where protecting one’s modesty — both that of women and men — is considered a sign of respect for oneself and for others.

That said, Andover’s rendition of “The Nutcracker” was not nearly as blatantly stereotypical as those of many major ballet companies. In “Tea,” there were no painted eyes or protruding fingers, and “Coffee” had no trace of the covert power imbalance between the male and female leads. Nonetheless, these two dances — merely by portraying other cultures as alternately subservient and enigmatic — hint at racial and ethnic stereotypes.

While some might argue that these racial caricatures are merely theatrical artifice — so-called stylization in the name of art — it is egregious when such presentations not only project a very limited view of a particular culture or race, but are actually acted out on stage, with impressionable children as their intended audience. Exposing children in particular to such overly-exaggerated, generalized portrayals of certain cultures only serves to further perpetrate ill-conceived stereotypes that we, as an open and fair-minded society, should work to discourage and discard.

Just as we no longer tolerate the abhorrent blackface portrayals from the minstrel era, we can no longer condone yellowface or the caricatured portrayals of Arabic culture. It’s time for a “Nutcracker” that appeals to sentimentality and nostalgia without yielding to offensive stereotypes. I, for one, would welcome a version that I could watch without cringing or rolling my eyes.