Is it Time to Re-imagine the Nutcracker?

So you’re probably wondering why a Nutcracker article is coming out in the middle of the summer, right? Well, while most associate The Nutcracker with the holiday season and the end of the year, the show production process starts much sooner than that; and for one, auditions are held as early as August! Basically, now is the time to start thinking about everything that goes into creating the show. In preparation for Nutcracker season, how about we take a closer look at the cultural statements made through this holiday classic.

As dancers, I think it’s safe to say that most of us have either performed in The Nutcracker ballet, seen the show, or at least have a niece who forces us to go see The Nutcracker every year. For those of you who don’t have any idea what I am talking about - you should most definitely purchase tickets to see the show this holiday season (it doesn't matter if it's ABT or your local company - it's a show you should see!). Even if you're a seasoned Nutcracker pro, the show only comes around once a year so here is a quick storyline refresher.

It’s okay to change things in order to move in a better direction

Little girl named Clara has a holiday party. Party gets crashed by creepy uncle. Creepy uncle brings even creepier toys to said party. One of these toys is a wooden Nutcracker soldier doll. Creepy uncle gives this doll to Clara. Party ends and rats the size of people show up. They terrorize Clara and her doll. Doll turns into giant doll to defend Clara. Rat king stabs giant doll man. Giant doll man is reincarnated into real man. Real man steals Clara from her home to take her to a land of candy (if you're getting creepy vibes - you're not alone.). Candy land is filled with various sweets from different nations (things get a bit questionable and potentially offensive to said nations). Clara has to go back to her house. She wakes up and you’re left wondering if it was all her imagination.

Now, obviously, this is just my quick and somewhat silly interpretation of the ballet. And just to be VERY clear, I really do love The Nutcracker. After all, I performed in it for eleven years, and every dancer works very hard to put on a wonderful production each Christmas season. But, as an adult, I do want to go back to this whole Land of the Sweets predicament. It's been brought to my attention throughout the years, and certainly, in my college debate classes (I was a dance major), that there are aspects of The Nutcracker ballet that clearly display racism and ethnocentrism. Now, I know this may be hard for some of us to hear, but I really believe there are scenes that stereotype certain races. In my opinion, it may be time to change some of these scenes to better represent the world we live in and show respect to the ethnicities that make up this big beautiful melting pot.

I think it's important to really examine and dissect some of these racially charged scenes found in a typical Nutcracker performance. The first one that stands out to me is the Chinese dance. First of all, in the majority of productions I've seen and performed in, it’s usually not a dancer of Chinese descent playing the part. Whether or not this is because there's a lack of dancers of Chinese origin to cast is one argument; additionally, I feel it’s not okay to cast someone who is Japanese or Korean (or of another Asian background) just because they look the part. Second, the infamous chopstick hands are just not okay! They’re just not. Could you imagine if someone tried to represent all of the United States by dancing with a burger in one of their hands and an extra large fry in the other? No! Because, it’s not okay, nor is it accurate. It’s definitely time to lose the chopstick fingers, cut the racism, and do some new choreography that accurately represents the peoples being portrayed in the dance.

Next… the Arabian dance. Oh, Arabian. Where to begin with you. The choreography in this scene typically entails a single or group of 'exotic' women. In some versions, such as the Balanchine version, they are simply enticing and sexual. However, I've also seen versions where the women are all married and under control, yes I repeat UNDER CONTROL of the King in the piece, the Sheik. Not only is this racist, but it’s also extremely sexist and culturally insensitive. It’s not fair or accurate to portray an entire race of people in one attitude! There may have been Sheiks back in the day, who may have been married to many women, but this would have been a lifestyle for a select group of people. To use the term 'Arabian' to describe the scene is putting the entire race under an umbrella of inaccuracy. Again, it’s simply not okay!

...cut the racism, and do some new choreography...

So, I'd like to present a possible solution to combat ethnocentrism and these choreographic implications. In a word… research! The groups of people The Nutcracker is trying to portray have a rich history and really beautiful forms of dance expression. What if productions were able to cast people who are actually Chinese, or who are truly Arabic, and not individuals who can “get away with it”? What if you brought in experts on classical dance forms and had the dancers immerse themselves with the history and delicacy of the dance style? So call me crazy, but I think it’s time to give this old tale some new moves. It’s okay to change things in order to move in a better direction. In fact, I bet that one dude who’s being dragged to his niece's Nutcracker performance every year is going to be really stoked to see some new and authentic choreography. So let’s make some waves people! It’s not like you have to worry about offending anyone, it’s already doing that for you. Just saying.

About the author

Keira Whitaker is a dedicated teacher, performer, and choreographer, who has been dancing for the past 21 years. She recently graduated from the University of California Irvine with a BFA in Dance performance and a minor in English.