The Nutcracker: How Ballet Companies are Addressing Racism in this Holiday Classic

Written by Robyn Jutsum

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The holiday season is here and things are getting nutty at The Ballet Spot as we take on the classic ballet, The Nutcracker, as December’s Cardio Ballet theme!

The Nutcracker, a brief synopsis:

Clara (or sometimes Marie) Stahlbaum and her brother Fritz are celebrating Christmas Eve at their family’s holiday party. As the festivities get underway, Herr Drosselmeyer, her godfather, appears and presents the children with a display of toys from his workshop. As he reveals each toy, the party guests are entertained by the suddenly animated toys such as soldiers and harlequin dolls. In some productions, Drosselmeyer even tells the tale of a brave soldier who fights off an evil Mouse King in a lifelike puppet show (foreshadowing anyone?). The final gift he bestows on the children is a handsome nutcracker which is presented to Clara. Fritz, who becomes jealous of Clara’s present, creates chaos with the other little boys at the party and in a game of tug-of-war, ends up ripping the head off of the nutcracker. Drosselmeyer consoles Clara and magically restores the head to its body as Clara nurses her wounded soldier.

As the party winds down, Clara is still attached to her nutcracker and falls asleep under the Christmas tree. As she sleeps, a mysterious thing occurs. The Christmas tree begins to grow taller and taller, shrinking everything underneath it, including Clara, and she awakes to a battle between an army of mice and their king versus her nutcracker and his company of toys. Right as the mouse king is about to attack the nutcracker, Clara famously throws her shoe right at the king’s head causing him to collapse and saving her nutcracker who suddenly transforms into a handsome prince. As thanks for saving him and winning the battle, the prince takes Clara through a snowy forest where Snowflakes dance in flurries (end of Act I) before revealing The Land of Sweets (Act II). Clara and her prince are welcomed to the kingdom and representatives from different lands present them with delicacies and dances (enter Spanish, Chinese, Arabian, Marzipan). In some versions, Mother Ginger emerges with her children as a finale before Dew Drop and her fleurs perform Waltz of the Flowers. It is a mixed bag whether or not the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier perform as a grand finale or if they perform at the top of Act II.

Once all of the dancers have performed for Clara and her prince, it is time for them to leave and the kingdom bids them farewell as they fly away in a magical sleigh. Clara awakes and discovers a normal-sized Christmas tree and her nutcracker in her arms. She is ushered to bed by her mother who has discovered Clara asleep under the tree. It is revealed that this was all just a beautiful dream…or was it?

Although The Nutcracker is a staple for company and school programming in the dance world, this tradition is most common at the holidays here in the U.S. In Europe, for instance, it is not unusual for The Nutcracker to be in a rotation of big storybook ballets to be performed this time of year, or for it to be performed at different times.

However and whenever it’s performed, it has been a hallmark identifier for the ballet world specifically. But, although it is often celebrated for its festive flair and nostalgia (and opportunity to bring in much needed revenue for companies), there has been increasingly loud and active discussion over the ballet’s clear shortcomings, including the cultural appropriation demonstrated predominantly in Act II in the Land of Sweets. As Clara and her prince are welcomed into the kingdom, they are entertained by dancers representing different parts of the world’s delicacies or stereotypical offerings. These include the Chinese “Tea”, Arabian ”Coffee,” and Spanish “Chocolate” divertissements. And even in Act I, certain productions have historically included the dance of the doll and her harlequin, made up in black face. The inclusion of blatant cultural appropriation and racism are unfortunately not new to The Nutcracker, and the conversation varies in terms of productivity with taking active steps to change.

A silver lining of the pandemic has been seeing the companies who are taking the time to assess and amend their productions for this season. One of the most notable is Pacific Northwest Ballet’s change to their Chinese divertissement, traditionally George Balanchine’s choreography. Working closely with Final Bow for Yellowface, they are introducing the brand new Green Tea Cricket. The cricket, a symbol of good fortune in Chinese culture, is a step the company is taking to pay respect to the culture and to make The Nutcracker more inclusive. Companies such as PNB who perform choreography kept under the license of the Balanchine Trust have, in the past year, received approval for certain changes to Balanchine’s Nutcracker. The trust does not require companies to make these changes.

At Butler University, alma mater to two of our instructors, Jennifer and Robyn, the Chinese divertissement is also getting a facelift with a name and character change. Butler Ballet’s The Nutcracker is the longest running production of the ballet in the state of Indiana, and this year, Chinese will be known as “Dragon Beard’s Candy.” This candy is an homage to a dessert once served to Chinese Emperors. Not only does it take on a historical note but also aligns with its sweet setting in the Land of Sweets.

The Scottish Ballet has announced changes to their versions of the Chinese and Arabian dances, and they will even have Drosselmeyer played by both men and women to create a more inclusive, 21st-Century experience.

Other productions have historically worked to be more inclusive and even expanded to include a variety of dance styles. Brooklyn Ballet, for instance, includes Native American hooping and hip-hop. Its production aims to be culturally inclusive and is a popular alternative here in New York City! And Debbie Allen’s Hot Chocolate Nutcracker (watch the documentary on Netflix!) is a fun spin on the concept of The Nutcracker, incorporating a versatile array of musical arrangements, not just Tchaikovsky’s original score. You’ll hear and see genres including but not limited to jazz, stepping, and hip-hop. You can also watch the full ballet streaming starting December 24th here!

Want to dabble in your own Nutcracker performance? Join our Cardio Ballet instructors to learn their Nutcracker-inspired combos! Send in a self-tape of you performing one of the combos and be a part of our Nutcracker Extravaganza! We will put all the submissions together in a compilation video that we’ll show in the new year. Participation is free AND participants will receive a discount on their next 5 or 10 class package! Sign up here.
Looking to watch The Nutcracker from home this season? This is a great breakdown of productions from last year to look for: Go Nuts for the Nutcracker.

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