How To Look Like A Non-Racist Production Of The Nutcracker
The original ballet was created by a bunch of racist white people. Unsurprising spoiler: The old dead racist white people were wrong.
I grew up as a ballet kid, so to me, Christmas means The Nutcracker. Unfortunately, in the Year of Our Cracked Nut 2017, The Nutcracker is STILL most often spoiled by what Lindsay King-Miller once memorably described as “surprise racism in the second act.” And my dudes? That is a damn shame. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Are you familiar with the story of the Nutcracker? Well whether you are or not, I’m here to school you. The Nutcracker centers around a little girl called either Marie or Clara (“Marie” in E.T.A. Hoffman’s weird short story upon which the ballet is based, “Clara” probably because the original ballet drew from Alexandre Dumas’s French version of the story rather than the original. I dunno; I grew up knowing her as Clara).
Marie-Clara has an irritating brother named Fritz, a godfather named Drosselmeyer who is a clockmaker, and some extremely rich-ass parents who throw a big to-do for the kids and friends every Christmas Eve. At this party, Drosselmeyer brings some extremely bangin’ clockwork gifts for Clara-Marie and Fritz, usually presented in the ballet as a full-size dancing mechanical doll and soldier rather than the intricate clockwork dollhouse of the story. THEN, Marie-Clara also gets a Nutcracker. Sometimes it’s presented to her by Drosselmeyer, sometimes it’s just a decoration she finds that she likes better than Drosselmeyer’s present and he gets jealous.
Whatever the sitch, Clara-Marie is ABOUT this Nutcracker, dancing around with it and stuff. But then Fritz, being a turd who can’t abide other people enjoying things, goes and breaks it. Drosselmeyer does a quick fix on the doll and the day is sort-of saved, and then the adults do a fancy dance and the party is over. But Marie-Clara is still concerned about her broken Nutcracker, right? So after all the guests leave she slips back to the drawing room to check on his well-being. That’s when things start to get weird(er).
As the clock strikes midnight, either the room grows or Clara-Marie shrinks, and she finds herself caught in the middle of a pitched battle between her toys and a bunch of menacing mice. Fritz’s soldier dolls, led by the Nutcracker himself, put up a good effort, but they ultimately start getting stomped once the Rat King appears to direct the mice’s efforts. Things are about to get really grim for our bearded nut-crackin’ hero when Marie up and throws her shoe at the Rat King, distracting him so the Nutcracker can land a killing blow.
The mice forlornly remove their leader from the stage and Drosselmeyer randomly appears to turn the boxy-headed Nutcracker into an ATTRACTIVE HUMAN BOY! And Clara-Marie’s like “ooooh, my spontaneous obsession with this wooden doll really paid off, you cute dude” and then the two of them wander off into the snow, as represented by ballet dancers in white tutus jumpin’ around. Then the curtain falls so the crew can hastily sweep up snow-confetti from the stage and it’s time for the second act, set in the Kingdom of Sweets.
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Now. In E.T.A. Hoffman’s story, the conclusion of the toy vs. mouse battle leads into a long-ass interlude called The Story of the Hard Nut, which makes some attempt to explain why the cute boy was a Nutcracker and why mice want to nibble his face off. In the ballet, we skip right past all that business so Marie and her “Prince” can go watch a bunch of other people dressed up as candy dance around. Great! Who needed all that stuff about a Princess named Pirlipat being cursed by a Mouse Queen anyway! However, here is where the problem comes in: The original ballet was created by a bunch of racist white people who thought it was fine and maybe even inclusive to represent savory treats such as “tea” and “coffee” as racist caricatures of Chinese and “Arabian” people, respectively.
Unsurprising spoiler: The old dead racist white people were wrong. It is NOT FINE to put on yellow- and brown-face and jump around for the amusement of white people! It is not fine at all; it is in fact reprehensible.
“BUT JENNIFER!” some white person somewhere is probably crying right now, “HOW CAN WE EVER PROPERLY MOUNT THIS BALLET WITHOUT THE RACISM?”
Easy, that’s how. Allow me to demonstrate.
First up in the line of divertissement dancers we have “Spanish” chocolate. Chocolate + Christmas, to me, suggests these absolutely stunning handmade colorful chocolates that my fancy art professor friend buys as gifts each year, jewel-like and vibrant. So…
Next in the line-up comes “coffee.” As a kid, I thought the hot pink translucent I Dream of Genie-esque “coffee” costume used in my hometown production of The Nutcracker was the most beautiful outfit I had ever seen. As an adult, I realize (duh, people) that it is deeply messed up to dress a teenage girl up as a glamorized, wildly racist depiction of a sex slave and have her undulate around the stage for the entertainment of a family audience! Like…no. No “harem girls.” This is a no-brainer.
“BUT JENNIFER,” some white person somewhere is crying, probably, “HOW CAN WE POSSIBLY REPRESENT THE SPIRIT OF COFFEE WITHOUT RESORTING TO 19TH CENTURY ORIENTALISM?” Well, how ‘bout focus on the color and consistency of coffee itself and have her dance around in a flowy brown silk costume? Make like the Pacific Northwest Ballet and turn her into a bird! Do it up Fantasia-style and have her be a fish! You have the imagination to handle this, small-town Nutcracker productions. I believe in you.
Now it’s time for Tea. TEA, ya heard, not extremely racist depictions of Chinese people! For the love of Drosselmeyer, do NOT dress a child up as something resembling a Fu Manchu bobblehead to represent “tea.” This seems as if it should be insultingly, obviously self-evident, and yet major Nutcracker performances across the nation still manage to fuck this up royally. Just…don’t.
TEA! Think tea party. Dress your dancers up as teapots. Costume ’em like extras from the tea room scene in The Love Witch. Turn them into birds again! Put ’em in cute little tutus! It doesn’t really matter what solution you devise, I promise; just skip the racism. We all benefit.
My cousin (a dancer herself) is married to a Ukrainian guy, and I witnessed some of his friends perform some exuberant impromptu prisiadka on the occasion of their wedding. I don’t care how good of a ballet dancer you are, you ain’t got a chance of doin’ it like those dudes. Most productions translate this portion of The Nutcracker into “candy canes,” and that works for me. Festive, cheerful, grand allegro! Easy.
Then we got marzipan shepherdesses, or “reed flutes,” depending on your production. My dad’s all-time favorite version of this dance involved some be-tutued ladies pulling a fake sheep around on a skateboard — the field is wide open. When I danced this as a younger person, I had to wear a bright yellow tutu and that image is gonna stick with me forever, so:
Mother Ginger is a rare chance for small-town dads to do drag on stilts. I can’t fault that. Go forth and be fabulous rather than buffoonish, be-stilted dancer dads!
The Waltz of the Flowers is the time when both corps de ballet dancers and audience members are worn out and ready for the whole shindig to just be over with. Might as well look pretty at that point!
And then there’s the Sugar Plum Fairy. I’ll be honest with you: I don’t know what a sugar plum is. I do know that the Sugar Plum Fairy is required to be the glitteriest bitch on the stage. BOOM:
“BUT JENNIFER,” some (white) someone somewhere is probably crying in response to these suggestions, “[the blatant racism included in most versions of The Nutcracker] IS NOT RACISM, IT’S *TRADITION*!!!”
- This notion is sadly incorrect, and 2. also laughable.
When The Nutcracker debuted in 1892, it bombed. People thought it was facile and insensible and that it was the stupidest thing ever dreamed up to feature actual children in the children’s roles, which is now the primary appeal when it comes to staging local productions put on by kids’ ballet schools. The Nutcracker didn’t take off in the U.S. at all until the mid-20th century, and get this: Every ballet company’s version is different. The music is the same, everything else is wildly dissimilar. Hell, nobody can even agree whether the protagonist is named Marie or Clara! What “tradition” dictates is that Girl + Nutcracker fight mice and go watch anthropomorphized candies dance. That’s it. Nowhere in the non-existent playbook does it say “gotta be super racist here, guys.”
Be better than the past. Let Clara-Marie and her formerly wooden bf watch something actually sweet. Let go of the racism and make a ballet that’s fun for everybody! Then Drosselmeyer can show up at the end once again to provide some glancing attempt at continuity and the audience can leave saying, “Wow, that sure was a bizarre ballet, but I really enjoyed it!”
Down with surprise racism, long live a non-racist Nutcracker.