A Racist Looks at The Nutcracker as a Form of Historical Dance

It’s been a while since I’ve seen The Nutcracker and a while since I’ve blogged too for that matter, but I’ll spare you all the apologies and excuses and get down to business.

By “a while” I mean years. Possibly decades even. I was in a production of the ballet when I was 8 or 9, and I remember my mom taking me to see it at Lincoln Center a few years later, but aside from the preschool version I staged with my creative movement students a few years ago, it’s been a while.

And during that while, I’ve gotten a few… well, degrees in dance.

And history.

And anthropology.

I’ve read a thing or two about feminist literary criticism. And the “male gaze.” And cultural appropriation. And invented traditions. And cultural hegemony. And the seemingly-innocent-nature of those oh-so-charming 19th century ballet “character dances.”

And so, the minute those cute little kids come skipping onstage in their cute little velvet capes (capes that I once coveted as a little girl who was very unhappily cast as a toy soldier and not as a party girl), the cultural anthropologist side of my brain starts to overwhelm the dance critic side:

Ummm… you know this ballet is totally sexist, right?

Anti-feminist, even?

In fact, I could re-write that last statement as “You know this ballet is totally sexist, right?” (Hah! How clever is THAT??)

And don’t even get me STARTED on Act II. The entire thing is a Buzzfeed post on racial stereotyping just WAITING to go viral.

But sometimes (at Christmas, for example, when you’re critiquing a family-friendly, holiday show), you’ve got to put aside your love of Julia Kristeva and Edward Said and just look at the actual dancers. You’ve got to recognize that dance forms don’t exist in a vacuum and that their “products,” so to speak, aren’t always reflective of contemporary society because, well, they’re not meant to be.

The School of Pennsylvania Ballet Students and Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker™ Photo: Alexander Iziliaev

The School of Pennsylvania Ballet Students and Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker™ Photo: Alexander Iziliaev

Does this mean that it’s okay that PA Ballet, like most classical ballet companies, has only a single African American dancer among its ranks? No. And to be honest, I’m already stressing about the year when my nephews are old enough to come to The Nutcracker with Aunt Kat because my not-so-secret-plan-of-turning-them-into-dancers (or at least dance lovers, with a healthy appreciation of Tchaikovsky) isn’t going to work if they don’t see anyone onstage who looks like them.

But they’re young. I’ve got another year or two to worry about that. In the meantime, Jermel Johnson was the very picture of virtuosic fabulousness as “Tea” on Opening Night (just ignore the obnoxious finger pointing that no Chinese person has actually ever done, remember that The Nutcracker is an artifact, and focus instead on his jumps; they go on for days). (And, while we’re on the subject, let’s pray that we all live to see the day where even well-meaning critics like Yours Truly don’t feel the need to single Johnson out as an example, except for his artistry, and when he can simply be a great dancer, not a great dancer AND the token-black-male-danseur-to-whom-I-hope-to-expose-my-nephews).

Anyway… getting back to the ballet.

Lillian DiPiazza just wasn’t, I don’t know, slithery enough for my taste as the scantily clad “Arabian” Coffee (because all scantily clad “Arabian” women are supposed to be snake-like in their movements right?); it could have been the Balanchine choreography (what was with all of that parallel passé prancing?) but I wanted something a bit more femme fatale.

(Then again, maybe the joke’s on us? Maybe Balanchine was actually, like, a secret feminist? Maybe we have to consider the intention behind the prancing? Perhaps Balanchine was trying to blow the femme fatale trope out of the water and DISMANTLE THE PATRIARCHY??? Then again, maybe not.)

I will say this: the Waltz of the Flowers was gorgeous. It was all the lovely patterning and phrasing you’d expect from a Balanchine piece: various groups of dancers weaving in and out, dancing with and in between the musical frame work, breaking off into those perfectly timed and perfectly executed canons… it was the very stuff that inspires all those little girls in the plush velvet seats at the Academy of Music to want to grow up and become ballerinas someday.

Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancer Lauren Fadeley and Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker™ Photo: Alexander Iziliaev

Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancer Lauren Fadeley and Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker™ Photo: Alexander Iziliaev

And while we’re on the subject of the corps, I will say this for them: they don’t get enough credit. They’re the ones who really carry these storybook ballets and although I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: their synchronization has really improved since Angel Corella took over as Artistic Director. I’m not sure if it’s him in particular or the team he has assembled, but whatever it is, it’s working.

Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker™ Photo: Alexander Iziliaev

Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker™ Photo: Alexander Iziliaev

Also? The kids. Thus far, I have failed to mention them.

And seeing as there are about a million of them in The Nutcracker, I suppose I should.

Fritz (who was played by Rowan Duffy on Opening Night) was completely adorable, and really cute and funny and bratty and all the things that a good little brother ought to be. Once again though, it was the rest of the kids however who really impressed me. Especially as an educator… it’s not easy getting that many youngsters to hold their own among professionals at such a young age. The toy soldiers were especially precise.

The School of Pennsylvania Ballet Student Rowan Duffy and Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker™ Photo: Alexander Iziliaev

The School of Pennsylvania Ballet Student Rowan Duffy and Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker™ Photo: Alexander Iziliaev

The Philadelphia Boys Choir deserves a mention as well. The one and only mark of childish behavior I witnessed from my seat in the orchestra was when they finished singing and disembarked from the booth in which they’d so silently taken up residence only a few minutes before: they left row by row with such precision that I began to doubt they were actually human. But then a few of them jumped down the steps. Ahhh my brain said. They are human after all. Cute. If my future children and nephews have no dancing talent, perhaps they can become singers.

Now for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier:

Sugar Plum

Pennsylvania Ballet Soloist Mayara Pineiro and Principal Dancer Arian Molina Soca in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker™ Photo: Alexander Iziliaev

Being that this was my first time seeing The Nutcracker with the fiancé (PIC), I thought it best to warn him about my usual reaction to the romantic pas de duex that ends the second act.

“I’m going to cry,” I told him, “and it doesn’t mean anything, and I cry every time I see it, and so does my mom, so it’s genetic and I can’t help it. But don’t worry when that happens: there is nothing wrong with me.”

Well, this year I did not cry, but that is not the fault of Mayara Pineiro and Arian Molina. They were beautiful together and despite a few wobbles, they almost made me cry, what with all those lifts and fish dives—and had PIC not A) noticed I was on the verge of tears, B) leaned in to kiss me just as I was leaning in to kiss him, thus crashing his forehead into mine right there in the middle of theater, the waterworks would have definitely been in full effect.

The boat did me in though.

I’d never actually seen the PA Ballet version of The Nutcracker before, and I can’t remember a flying boat in any of the others I’ve seen—a candy-coated throne on wheels maybe, or a giant swan, or a pair of seashells that whisk Marie and the Nutcracker back into reality, but a boat? A boat that flies?

Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker™ Photo: Alexander Iziliaev

Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker™ Photo: Alexander Iziliaev

Let’s just say I managed to stop focusing on everything that is wrong with The Nutcracker and finally remember why its antiquated ever-so-slightly-racist-and-rather-sexist aesthetic has endured for over a century.

It has something to do with cultural hegemony sure, and WASP dominance, and outdated gender norms, and Williams Sonoma catalogues reifying the idea and look of a “perfect” Christmas.

But it also has to do with glee, pure and simple.

The glee my fiancé exhibited on spotting the Mouse King in the lobby.

The same glee that compelled us to pose for a picture with said Mouse King even though we are both in our 30s and know it’s only a costume.

And I sincerely hope my nephews will experience this same glee someday.

P.S. As some of you may have guessed, the title of today’s post is a takeoff on Joann Kealiinohomoku’s “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance.” It’s a brilliant article that explains, in a nutshell, that ballet developed in a specific time and place (sixteenth-century France) and that it exhibits, therefore, the cultural trappings of said time and place, just as all dance forms do. Unfortunately, Western ethnocentrism prevents most people from realizing this. We tend to think of ballet as “high art” and so-called “vernacular,” “social,” or “ethnic” dance forms as “low” (in the same way that we use the terms “classical” and “popular” to rank different types of music).

P.P.S. I swapped out the original “ethnic dance” title for “historical dance” in this post not because ballet is not ethnic (it is) but because I feel it is more appropriate to evaluate The Nutcracker (and similar works) from a historical perspective. This doesn’t excuse the lack of 21st-century political correctness, especially in Act II, but it does help us to interpret the work on its own terms and avoid blaming the dancers for some imagined “failure” to live up to contemporary expectations.

P.P.P.S. I called myself a “racist” in the title of this piece because I am. As I was writing the paragraph about Jermel Johnson, I started to realize (as I often realize), that I need to continuously reevaluate the way I think and communicate about issues surrounding the myth of race and the reality of racism. I left the paragraph as I originally wrote it in this post for a few reasons: firstly, to show how pervasive racism is in our society (I’m an anthropology professor and I still f*ck up sometimes, in this case by using a black dancer’s body for my own agenda as a writer) and secondly because we can’t fix our problems if we don’t acknowledge them. It’s when we’re too scared to admit to things like experiencing privilege and being racist that these issues go unchecked.

P.P.P.P.S. Pennsylvania Ballet is probably never going to invite me back, because this was supposed to be a review of The Nutcracker and it clearly wasn’t. But what can I say? This is my personal blog and not an official forum for dance criticism so I’m being a bit more outspoken than usual. And besides, isn’t art supposed to make us think?

Update: A few weeks after posting this, I got a call from Pennsylvania Ballet. My first thought was, “Oh boy, here it comes… The proverbial slap on the wrist.” But nope, they liked this post and hired me to write their next program note. So, in the words of John Mayer, “Say what you mean to say.”

12 Responses to “A Racist Looks at The Nutcracker as a Form of Historical Dance”

  1. themollysaurus

    I recently saw the play in Seoul, and I have to say I love this ballet. It reminds me of Christmas past when I would watch with my parents and believe in its magic. True, ballet is racist and sexist which deems it archaic to today’s society. I am not condoning the absence of black ballerina’s, but merely saying that with a ballet as classic as The Nutcracker I feel like you sort of have to accept that going in.

    Reply
    • Kat Richter

      Yes, it’s a difficult call. I think what most people (or at least most grown ups) love about The Nutcracker is the nostalgia factor. As a critic, however, I’m just not sure how to write about it without acknowledging the things that make it less relevant. I’d be very interested to see a production of it in Seoul though! Would make for an interesting comparison 🙂

      Reply
      • themollysaurus

        The tree that is supposed to shoot from the ground was a painted curtain and they didn’t have my savor ute part- the lady who has the oversized dress and the children come dancing out of it. All that was a lessened because the special effects they used were amazing

        Reply
  2. Leah

    Thank you for the education. I enjoyed the review of the ballet, but was struck when you called yourself out for singling out Jermel Johnson. Just the other day I caught myself out with a sexist comment. My wife and I are house sitting and have use of the home owners’ vehicle. In reaction to a slightly messy situation on a road trip, I pointed out that “SHE has baby wipes in the glove compartment.” Ugh. Why are they HER baby wipes? My wife then realized that she’s been referring to HIS car. Good grief! We have work to do every day with racism and sexism, don’t we?

    Reply
    • Kat Richter

      Indeed, yes. I was reading a post the other day where a father was said to be “babysitting” his own child; if it had been the mother, the term “babysitting” would have never been applied. But I think realizing these sorts of things are half the battle (or at least a good place to start). Thanks for your comment!

      Reply

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