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Bringing Down The Curtain On Yellowface

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's "The Nutcracker."
San Francisco Ballet / © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's "The Nutcracker."

There’s a particular scene in “The Nutcracker” called the Tea Dance.

In this recording, the dancers play Chinese characters, making jerky, exoticized movements and exaggerated, racialized costumes.

And in Chinese Tea scene in “The Nutcracker” performers are traditionally made up to be Asian, often in stereotypical or offensive ways.

As scholar Jennifer Fisher opined in The L.A. Times:

Ballet people will argue that all of these elements in “The Nutcracker” are just tradition, that no insult is intended. But in 2018, no one should be able to plead ignorance of stereotyping’s dangers. During my “Nutcracker” research in dozens of backstage conversations, I ran into effervescent young ballet girls, most of them white, who dutifully told me that the Chinese Dance helped them “learn about other cultures.” What I saw them learning was how to flatten anyone of Asian descent into a cartoon.

But two people, a dancer and an arts administrator, are saying it’s time to change the tradition of this dance.

New York City Ballet soloist Georgina Pazcoguin and administrator Phil Chan started a petition called “Final Bow For Yellowface.” They recommended we check out how Ballet West, a dance company based out of Salt Lake City, is reinterpreting the section of the show.

Asian representation has come under fire in Hollywood and the modeling world also. Model Karlie Kloss faced major backlash after she posed as a Japanese geisha in an issue of Vogue ostensibly about diversity.

Should longheld traditions change with the times? How has the ultra-white ballet world grappled with issues of race?


Phil Chan, Arts administrator and activist, and former dancer; co-founder, “Final Bow For Yellowface” campaign; director of programming, IVY, a professional membership organization focused on continuing education; @philschan

Georgina Pazcoguin, Soloist, New York City Ballet; known in the ballet world as the “Rogue Ballerina”; co-founder of the “Final Bow for Yellowface” campaign; @GPazcoguin

Adam Sklute, Artistic director, Ballet West based in Salt Lake City, Utah

Josephine Lee, Professor of English and Asian American Studies, University of Minnesota; author, “The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado” and “Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage“

For more, visit https://the1a.org.

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