Performing Arts

No more ‘outdated caricatures’: KC Ballet will alter Chinese dance in ‘Nutcracker’

For years, the Kansas City Ballet’s annual production of “The Nutcracker” has followed tradition.

The young Clara is transported to a magical world of graceful snowflakes, a beautiful Sugarplum Fairy, majestic Russian dancers … and simpering Asians in pointy rice-paddy hats scurrying about in a broad caricature, complete with Fu Manchu mustache.

But on Friday, the Kansas City Ballet announced it has banished that sort of representation in “The Nutcracker” and “will continue to evolve away from stereotypes and outdated caricatures.”

Devon Carney, the ballet’s artistic director, said the company is following the lead of the New York City Ballet, which last year removed “elements of racial caricature from the costumes, makeup and choreography,” elements that had been in place for decades.

“Unfortunately, things continue and propagate themselves for generations after generations,” he told The Star on Friday. “We all continue on the same path without questioning its origins.

“That’s what’s so wonderful now, when we as a society question norms. Is this right? Does this accurately and respectfully represent an individual of that cultural background?”

The move also comes in the wake of a petition on change.org urging the Kansas City Ballet to “Remove Yellowface from the Nutcracker.”

The scene in question comes in the second act of the wildly popular holiday show, as Clara is entertained by an international array of treats in the Land of Sweets: Spanish chocolate, Arabian coffee, gingerbread and that tea. It’s part of the choreography created in 1954 by New York City Ballet founder George Balanchine.

The Balanchine Trust, which owns the rights to his work, approved the changes for other companies to follow, according to The New York Times. Other ballet companies, such as Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Boston and Miami, have made changes, too, such as using a Chinese warrior fighting a Chinese dragon — more of a celebration than a mockery.

Devon Carney
Kansas City Ballet artistic director Devon Carney Kansas City Ballet

Carney said he started to make changes when he revamped the “Nutcracker” costumes, sets and some choreography in 2015. Dancers in the Chinese scene no longer had to point both index fingers in the air the entire time, “a horrible stereotype of Asian Americans,” Carney said. But now he realizes that adjustment wasn’t enough.

“(Ballet) companies are really starting to take action, which is inspiring me to take action. Is there more that needs to be done?”

So instead of those conical hats, the ballerinas will wear hair combs decorated with flowers and ribbons. For the male lead, the stereotypical mustache is gone. But Carney is keeping some of his newer elements that better reflect Chinese culture: parasols and a lion dog, the kind you see in Chinese New Year parades.

SNOWQUEEN_AC_120717_DAP_096
Whitney Huell was the Kansas City Ballet’s first black ballerina to play the Snow Queen in “The Nutcracker.” This year she’s the Sugarplum Fairy. David Pulliam The Kansas City Star

The Kansas City Ballet has shown its commitment to diversity and sensitivity in previous “Nutcrackers.” Two years ago, Whitney Huell became the company’s first black ballerina to dance the role of the Snow Queen. Last year and again this year, she’ll dance the coveted role of the Sugarplum Fairy.

In fact, Carney said, about a quarter of the company are dancers of color.

“I’m going to keep my eyes wide open,” Carney said. “The guy in charge needs to continually be cognizant of this. I feel the weight of this in a very substantial way. I’m always in need of keeping my eyes open and not assuming that everything is OK.”

This year’s “The Nutcracker” will run Dec. 5-24 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. See kcballet.org.

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Sharon Hoffmann is an enterprise editor at The Star. She grew up in the KC area, graduated from the University of Kansas and promptly moved away. After she married and had kids, she just had to come back. She has been editing Kansas City Star stories since 1999.
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