Recently, I had the pleasure of watching the Oakland Ballet Company (OBC) rehearse for their production of Dancing Moons Festival at the studio where I teach. Dancing Moons was Oakland Ballet’s response to the rise in anti-Asian bigotry and violence, celebrating Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) choreographers and musicians.
To create this program, OBC Artistic Director Graham Lustig reached out to New York choreographer and scholar Phil Chan, co-founder of Final Bow for Yellowface, an organization dedicated to diversifying ballet companies while working to divest the field of offensive stereotypes. I took the opportunity to review Mr. Chan’s book of the same name.
Final Bow For Yellowface: Dancing Between Intention and Impact presents a fascinating history of how the Chinese are portrayed in the world of ballet, especially the Nutcracker, the effect of these portrayals, and the evolution of an Old World aristocratic dance form in a New World democratic environment. It also shares thoughtful best practices for any arts organization to navigate issues around race.
As Jennifer Stahl, Editor in Chief of Dance Magazine, wrote, “This book changes the conversation from ‘How can we be politically correct and avoid offense?’ to ‘How can we truly invite everyone into our world?’”
Chan’s activist odyssey began when Peter Martins, then Director of the New York City Ballet, called him to discuss updating the “Chinese” dance in NYCB’s Nutcracker. The Nutcracker is American ballet’s most popular production, accounting for a significant share of any company’s income. Companies are starting to pay attention to pushback on outdated and stereotyped cultural presentations, and NYCB was early to this conversation. Too much income was at stake to get it wrong with its diverse audience.
At the same time, ballet is a conservative art form with a deep respect for history and tradition. The original Nutcracker was choreographed in the early 1890s by French choreographer Marius Petipa for the Maryinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg. Petipa is the father of what we now consider classical ballet. He choreographed hit after hit in his lifetime, including Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, La Bayadere, Le Corsaire, Raymonda, Paquita, and over 75 more, just while he was working in Russia. His choreographies remain popular. As Chan found in conversing with Mr. Martins and later with other artistic directors, often there is an acknowledgment of stereotyped portrayals in classical ballets yet a reluctance to part with tradition.
In the case of the Nutcracker, the second act contains dances meant to represent Spain, Arabia, Russia, and China. Petipa had danced in Spain and Russia, working closely with national and folk dancers from these countries. The dances that he and his assistant Lev Ivanov created to represent these cultures are still esteemed.
However, neither Petipa nor Ivanov had visited China or Arabia or worked with dancers from these regions. They did their best by studying images from objects such as screens, fans, and porcelain. As Chan says, “Imagine defining American culture based on a Mickey Mouse plate!”
What resulted as their portrayal of the Chinese was a lightly comedic dance with minor caricature elements such as pointed index fingers, thought to suggest chopsticks. More exaggerated caricature steps were added over time, especially in the mid-20th century, such as shuffling steps to convey bound feet and head-bobbing to denote the humble bow.
While none of these elements are related to actual Chinese folk dancing, Chan notes that the pointed fingers gesture has persisted across film, pantomime, vaudeville, television, and performing arts for over a hundred years to suggest “Chinese” to Western audiences.
In its traditional mid-20th century form, the dance is beloved by many as a cute, amusing confection, its feeling well-captured in Disney’s Fantasia. So what is the harm in annually portraying this Western interpretation of Chinese culture?
To explain, Chan begins by noting Russia’s relationship with China when Petipa choreographed The Nutcracker. Russia was fascinated by Chinese culture and enjoyed tea, silk, and porcelain imports. At the same time, Russians viewed China as a weak and subservient country, forced to submit to Russia, Japan, and Britain.
Chan says, “That a Chinese dance was comedic, that its effect was one of charm, grace, and laughter mirrors Russia’s enjoyment of Chinese goods, but likely at the expense of respect for the Chinese people.” Chinese women were regarded as beautiful, doll-like, and subservient; Chinese men, with the long braided queues they were forced to wear as a sign of allegiance to their Manchu rulers, were regarded as effeminate. Today, the Chinese dance is typically the only dance where male and female dancers do not partner with each other.
Chan notes that during The Nutcracker’s debut period, Chinese caricature in art, literature, theater, and dance began. He points out that he doesn’t believe modern artistic directors intend racism, and he finds it counterproductive to begin conversations with that accusation. Still, as the book’s subtitle (Dancing Between Intention and Impact) implies, a choreography’s impact is sometimes different from what was intended based on who is in the audience.
I’m a Korean-American double bassist studying classical music, and I work at one of the largest performing arts institutions in the world. Classical music has always been a part of my life, but with operas such as Turandot and Madame Butterfly, ballets such as The Miraculous Mandarin and The Nutcracker, I’m constantly reminded that this is how our art presentations interpret me and my culture. If this is how Asians and non-Whites are represented, how can we find our place within the arts that we’re passionate about?Ashley S., quoted in Final Bow For Yellowface
Chan argues that a key to ensuring that both dancers and audience members feel proud of how a company reflects them and their unique heritage is transforming caricatures into characters. He describes caricatures as having the qualities of exaggeration, often being the butt of the joke, seen as “other,” based on secondary or anecdotal sources, and being two-dimensional.
By contrast, a character has nuance. They’re in on the joke in a comedic situation. They are portrayed to allow the audience to identify or empathize with them. Their portrayal is based on primary sources, and they have a three-dimensional quality.
To illustrate this difference, he compares the Siamese cats in Walt Disney’s 1955 Lady and the Tramp, named Si and Am, to the characters in the same studio’s 1998 feature film, Mulan. Si and Am were voiced by Peggy Lee, a white actress, in a sing-song Asianesque dialect and had no personality other than to portray the “wily Oriental” trope.
By contrast, the cast of Mulan consisted primarily of actors of Asian descent. Disney sent its animators to China, where they spent weeks researching and capturing source material from the landscape, architecture, and people and Ming and Tang dynasty art while adopting a minimalist animation style that emulates traditional Chinese calligraphy.
Interestingly, Chan notes from his research, Chinese people in China are typically less offended by Western stereotypes of Asians than Asian Americans. He explains that as members of the majority in their country, they are “not subject to the limiting portrayals that Asian Americans face.”
While Chinese Americans often cling to the few token artists and actors that represent them in the media, Chinese in China are used to being portrayed as every type of character, from hero to villain to romantic lead to buffoon to everything in between. They’re used to seeing themselves portrayed as the full range of humanity, and they’re unaware of the long history of race-based caricatures in the U.S. and the effect of these limited caricatures on how Americans perceive Asians.
“We all want to belong; when this group is always royalty, and that group is always the coolie, the slave, or the butt of the joke – or even the exotic (oriental) – we internalize the embedded messages about belonging or not. We see confirmation of our place in the world, who has power to decide who belongs, and what we can and can’t aspire to.”Phil Chan, Final Bow For Yellowface
To those who argue in favor of leaving choreography entirely static to be true to the original creator’s art, Chan notes that the performing arts aren’t the same as the visual arts. Once a painting is made, it forever remains as it was created. However, he likens the performing arts to sourdough bread, where you take a piece of “starter” from the previous batch to make the new loaf.
Each generation of dancers teaches the rising generation the steps, and inevitably adjustments are made to suit the current times, audience, and even the particular abilities of the dancers. Ballet has gradually yet continually evolved. And now, thanks to film, it is possible to retain the exact memory of historical choreographies, so there’s no need to be so precious about them.
As an example of this evolution, Chan shares the story of how Utah’s Ballet West updated its Nutcracker. Willem Christiansen founded Ballet West, and the company performs his version of The Nutcracker. Willem choreographed in 1944 and filled his Chinese dance with spinning parasols, shuffling feet, bobbing heads, and pointy hats.
By contrast, his brother Lew Christensen, founder of the San Francisco Ballet, created a version of The Nutcracker in which the Chinese dance was inspired by the Lunar New Year celebrations he had seen in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Lew’s dance features a warrior battling a playful Chinese dragon. Ultimately, Ballet West substituted Lew’s version of the dance with Willem’s, recognizing it as a celebration of Chinese culture rather than a caricature in great part because Lew had first-hand knowledge of Chinese culture where Willem did not.
Chan effectively shows how choreographers can create better art by including and reflecting our diverse society. I recommend Final Bow for Yellowface as a valuable blueprint for any artistic organization considering how to present different races in artistic performances.
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