George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker: How Racism Worked on the old forms of Ballet
In 2017, New York City Ballet officially modified the choreography, costumes, and makeup of the Chinese Tea dance featured in the ballet The Nutcracker. In October 2018, The Balanchine Trust, which owns the rights to every single ballet by George Balanchine, informed all other ballet companies in the world of the officially approved changes. What drove the Balanchine Trust to make such drastic changes for the most beloved ballet of all time? Which complaints were heard enough that they were forced to change something so dear to so many?
George Balanchine emigrated from Russia to New York to achieve the ultimate American dream. Along with Lincoln Kristen, Balanchine co-founded the New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet where Balanchine’s rough and impeccable technique became the most prestigious form of ballet in America. Balanchine remained as the artistic director for more than 35 years and he is considered to be the most influential father of American ballet.
Balanchine is the official choreographer of The Nutcracker, which has just been changed. The Nutcracker is based on an old German story that has been interpreted in so many ways, but Balanchine’s version sticks to only one. During a snowy Christmas Eve at the home of the Stahlbaum, a party around the Christmas tree begins as little Marie’s beloved godfather, Herr Drosselmeier, starts to unravel his gifts for all of the children. Drosselmeier gives Marie a wonderful present; a handsome wooden Nutcracker. But when Marie falls asleep, magical and scary events begin to take place in the living room. Little Marie finds herself falling in love with the now humanized Nutcracker, who battles the Mouse King and takes his new love to the Land of Sweets afterwards. At this magical land, they encounter the Sugarplum Fairy and Candy Canes, as well as Hot Chocolate from Spain, Coffee from Arabia and Chinese Tea.
Back then, it was considered entertaining and extremely adorable to witness the Chinese Tea segment that consisted of pointy fingers movements, rice-paddy hats, and Fu Manchu mustaches in the male dancers. However, now this is considered an act of displaying stereotypes and a racist agenda of entertainment. These long overdue changes made to this racist perspective are just the beginning of a more empathetic and sensitive society.
In many ways, The Nutcracker is the story of a young couple who encounter different cultures through the perspective of Westernized racial stereotypes. These cultural stereotypes not only reside on the Chinese Tea dance, but also in the Coffee from Arabia. The ballerina, in a hypersexualized dance and outfit, performers for the nutcracker and his new teenage wife an arabesque routine that shows her contortionist skills while showing lots of skin and “womanhood.”
Essentially, the many sexist and racist aspects of Balanchine’s The Nutcracker worked because audiences loved to see ethnic minorities in a degrading way that validated their whiteness and maleness as superior. By entertaining the white and pretty characters that Marie and The Nutcracker are, people of color get casted as secondary characters. Times are now changing in the era of #MeToo and in the era where racism, classism, and misogyny get called out for what it really is. This is not a ‘too sensitive’ issue, this is an issue about how the entertainment of white audiences is often the exploitation of racial stereotypes.
To conclude, next time that you witness a similar stereotypical, racist, and sexist performance in ballet, ask yourself; “how will this piece look like in 50 years? Will this be modified?” And more importantly, “do I like watching racist and sexist performances?” that is a real question you need to ask yourself and fix it if the answer is yes.