Oregon Ballet Theatre removes 'yellowface' from 'The Nutcracker'

This photo shows what the Chinese Tea Dance costumes looked like before Oregon Ballet Theatre made changes. The theatre is working to remove racist stereotypes against Asians from The Nutcracker performance. Photo courtesy Oregon Ballet Theatre

Oregon Ballet Theatre is opening the curtain on a new era for George Balanchine's The Nutcracker.

"Any of the stuff that was in it that was questionable is gone," says OBT Rehearsal Director Lisa Kipp, who has long thought the Chinese Tea Dance in the second act was problematic. She says it's filled with old, offensive stereotypes of Asians.

She’s referring to the over-drawn, slanted eye makeup, the pagoda hats, the pointed fingers in the choreography, and the Fu-Manchu-style mustache and long ponytail on the male dancer.

“It was choreographed so long ago, over 50 years ago,” says OBT Artistic Director Kevin Irving. “In my opinion, there was no intent to be denigrating or offensive. It’s just that it was something that was exotic and they played to the exoticism of it.”

But what began as character has become caricature, and people have noticed.

Recently, The Balanchine Trust, which owns the rights to this production of The Nutcracker, agreed that the Chinese Tea Dance contained “stereotypes which are not positive to the Asian culture.”

“There was not the awareness and activism there is now, so when it was brought to the Trust, we committed to making changes,” says George Balanchine Trust Director Ellen Sorrin. “We do not want audiences to be offended by any Balanchine ballet.”

In a rare move in November of 2018, The Trust emailed ballet companies around the country, giving them permission to make adjustments.

“It feels really good. I’m very happy about it,” Kipp says of hearing the news.

But it turns out, OBT was ahead of the curve. Over the past three years, Kipp has made small changes to the Chinese Tea Dance, with Irving’s support.

"When she brought to my attention that this was offensive, I was like, ‘Well duh! Let's try to do something about it,’” Irving tells KATU.

First, they got rid of the eye makeup. Then, the pointy fingers.

Kipp says, "It was not under the auspices of the Trust saying, ‘Yea, you're allowed to do that.’ I just sort of did it."

So they had to do it subtly.

"There was a little bit of a sense that we were skirting around a danger zone,” says Irving.

Here’s the problem: The Nutcracker is copyrighted material. It’s strictly controlled by the Balanchine Trust, so changing anything requires permission. Permission ballet companies around the country now have.

“I have to say I was a little bit surprised and I was extremely impressed with the swiftness with which they took the decision,” says Irving.

Kipp tells KATU, “When I got the email from Kevin this year that the Trust had made a new version, I was stoked. I was very excited that we could finally legitimately make this change.”

A month before opening for the 2018 production, OBT got new costumes. They threw out the hats, the Fu-Manchu mustache and braid, and removed from the choreography anything that was racially or culturally insensitive.

Irving says it was an easy fix. “You know, when someone gives you good news, even if it requires a bit of work, it’s a pleasure.”

The groundswell of pressure on the Balanchine Trust came from Georgina Pazcoguin, a New York City Ballet soloist, and Phil Chan, an arts administrator and former dancer. Their movement “Final Bow for Yellowface” has swept the nation. Dozens of leaders in the arts, including Irving of OBT, signed the pledge to create more positive representations of Asians in ballet.

KATU spoke with Chan on the phone, who says he’s thrilled by the response. “As an Asian American in ballet who’s been sensitive to this for a while, seeing this national movement has been really inspiring for me.” He added, “I would like to commend Mr. Irving I would like to commend him as a leader in diversity on this issue.”

Chan says after talking with New York City Ballet, it modified the costumes, makeup and choreography in its version of Tea last year, which convinced the Balanchine Trust to approve changes for everyone this year.

“I don’t want to take credit for starting the conversation. We merely consolidated a lot of conversations that were happening around the country already.”

At Oregon Ballet Theatre, Lisa Kipp says those conversations will continue, with more changes on the way.

"What happens with the Balanchine Nutcracker does sort of have a ripple effect through sort of the Nutcracker world."

And she has no problem with that.

“It's not going to impact the beauty of it, it's not going to impact the tradition of it, audiences will enjoy it just the same, if not more. It's time, it's really time."

OBT presents George Balanchine's The Nutcracker December 8th-26th 2018 at Keller Auditorium. Click here for tickets.

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