26 September 2023

Beloved ballet gets an anti-racism makeover

Start the conversation

Pauline McLean* says the Scottish Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker has undergone a few adjustments with the aim of eliminating some historical stereotypes.

For many, a trip to see the ballet The Nutcracker is as traditional as it gets. A magical tale of toys that come to life, dances in the snow and a majestic score by Tchaikovsky.

It is to ballet companies what pantomime is to theatres, and after a period of absence because of the pandemic, it couldn’t be more welcome.

However, The Nutcracker has become increasingly problematic for companies like the Scottish Ballet who are keen to stand up against racism in the industry, as well as encouraging diversity in their own organisation.

Created more than a century ago, its central characters are like the audience for which it was intended, wealthy and white.

That’s an issue which will gradually be resolved by blind casting, but the dancers have to be there in the first place, and for the past decade, many commentators have continued to criticise the industry for its lack of encouragement and inspiration.

French dancer, Chloe Lopes Gomes called out Germany’s Staatsballet, where she was the first black ballerina, for demanding she wear white make-up in a production of Swan Lake.

Earlier this year, she won her case and had her contract renewed. She described it as a wake-up call for an industry which was still “closed and elitist”.

Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Scottish Ballet, Christopher Hampson says commitments come easily through writing or speaking, “so our most important commitment to help drive anti-racism is action”.

To that end, he’s made some small but subtle changes to the 2021 production of The Nutcracker, which has opened at Edinburgh Festival Theatre.

The second act contains the Land of the Sweets where various characters perform set-piece dances for the heroine, Clara.

There are Chinese dancers, an exotic Arabian dancer and of course, the famous Sugar Plum fairy. They’re all characters in Clara’s dream, so not meant to be entirely realistic, but the undercurrent of racism has not gone unnoticed.

In 2013, Ronald Alexander of the Harlem School of the Arts wrote in Dance magazine that they were “borderline caricatures, if not downright demeaning”.

Scottish Ballet brought in Chinese choreographer, Annie Au to work with the dancers on a more authentic fan dance. Pointe shoes are ditched. The two dancers are in flats to allow them to perform the intricate footwork.

It might seem like a small effort, but there were elements of the original dance which were actually offensive to Chinese patrons.

The queue, or traditional ponytail, was a symbol of submission to the Manchu imperial rule and not having one was considered treason.

“Early Chinese Americans were literally lynched and hung up in trees by their own hair,” says dancer and writer, Phil Chan, who co-founded the campaign Final Bow for Yellowface.

It aims to eliminate racist stereotypes in ballet productions, and Scottish Ballet was one of the first companies to sign up.

Mr Hampson said when people were in an audience, and saw a representation of their culture on stage at Scottish ballet “we want that to be a positive experience”.

“We want everyone to feel welcome to come see a performance, and to feel represented and celebrated.”

The Arabian dance costume has also been altered slightly, and the character of Drosselmeyer the magician is played on alternate nights by a male and female dancer.

“Art must evolve to speak to our times, which is why our Drosselmeyer will be played by male and female dancers,” Mr Hampson said.

“I made this change after considering who our heroes are in ballets, and it struck me that there was nothing about this role that suggested only a man could deliver it.”

He points out that every version of the show since it was first created for Scottish Ballet by founding Director, Peter Darrell in 1972 would have had changes made.

Already, he’s looking towards next year’s production of the Snow Queen, and hopes to have conversations with representatives of the Gypsy, Roma and traveller communities about any changes which might be needed.

Change is happening slowly, onstage and off, some of it so subtle you might not even notice it’s there, like the bronze and brown shoes and tights created for black, Asian and mixed race dancers.

Scottish Ballet was one of the first companies to use the range, and it is now promoted to the Young Associates Program.

Mr Hampson said when The Nutcracker was created, it was acceptable to represent other cultures through imitation.

“If we are representing a culture, it’s important that we have done our due diligence to ensure it is done so authentically. By rectifying inappropriate cultural stereotypes, we’re adding to the production’s heritage and making it richer,” he said.

*Pauline McLean is the arts correspondent for the British Broadcasting Corporation in Scotland.

This article first appeared on the BBC website.

Start the conversation

Be among the first to get all the Public Sector and Defence news and views that matter.

Subscribe now and receive the latest news, delivered free to your inbox.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.