Cracking cultural appropriation: Butler Ballet updates “The Nutcracker”

Butler students perform the iconic Waltz of the Snowflakes from “The Nutcracker”.

ARIE LIKHTMAN | STAFF REPORTER | alikhtman@butler.edu

If it wasn’t obvious enough from the frigid temperatures and the abundance of red Starbucks cups containing peppermint mochas, the holiday season has finally arrived here on campus. The holidays at Butler would not be the same without campus’ countless end of the year traditions, perhaps the most notable of which being Butler ballet’s annual rendition of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s timeless ballet: “The Nutcracker” 

Butler is home to the longest running production of “The Nutcracker” in the state of Indiana, cementing this ballet as an institution not only among the Butler’s campus, but among the larger Indianapolis community. 

As with any tradition, every new iteration of this show brings not only a wave of nostalgia, but a chance to look back on the past and take a step into the future. This year, Butler ballet is taking a giant leap forward, seizing the opportunity to bring an iconic yet antiquated ballet into the 21st century, updating the production to be far more inclusive and celebratory of diverse cultures.  

In order to shine a light on how Butler ballet hopes to change “The Nutcracker” for the better, it is best to take a step back and look at the fraught cultural history of this ballet, which has been strongly criticized as being problematic.  

The show was written in 1892 by Russian composer Pyotor Illyich Tchaikovsky, who took inspiration from a book by German author E.T.A. Hoffman. The story is set on Christmas Eve, following a young girl by the name of Clara, as she dreams of befriending a Nutcracker Prince. The Prince guides Clara through an enchanted journey across multiple whimsical lands, including the Land of Snow and the Land of Sweets.

While the Land of Snow dances have been mostly subject to critical acclaim, the Land of Sweets dances reveal the uncomfortably tone-deaf nature of the ballet, specifically in regards to the show’s depiction of Asian cultures.

One of the dances features an homage to tea and is simply known as “The Chinese Dance.” In most productions of “The Nutcracker,” the Chinese tea dancers are portrayed by caucasian performers dressed in stereotypical Chinese clothing, with some productions even appropriating stereotypes of Chinese eye shapes using makeup. This blatant use of yellowface — the practice of non-Asian people imitating Asian stereotypes — has been the subject of intense condemnation in the dance world, especially in the wake of renewed dialogues about the necessity of cultural sensitivity and inclusion in the arts.

Butler Ballet is re-envisioning the tea scene to be far more accurate and representative of the rich cultural history of China in order to take a stand against orientalist cultural practices. Orientalism refers to the otherization of Asian cultures by Europeans.

Ramon Flowers, assistant dance professor at the Jordan College of the Arts, describes some of the key changes that Butler ballet has made to the tea scene. 

“For the section formerly known as ‘Chinese,’ I suggested we call it Dragon’s Beard Candy, which is a dessert that used to serve the Emperors of China,” Flowers said. “I changed the movements to reflect the essence of The Monkey King, the main character in the classical Chinese epic novel Journey to the West.”

Sydney Kastelitz, a senior strategic communications major, describes the audience experience of the overall production and the Dragon’s Beard candy scene. 

“The production was beautiful, the choreography, the costumes, and the individual dancers created an incredible atmosphere.” Kastelitz said in a message to The Butler Collegian. “The [Dragon’s Beard Candy] scene included a male soloist and four women. The women used fans and the male soloist did a lot of gymnastics-tumbling-karate-type moves. It was definitely a difficult dance.” 

Flowers has also utilized his own background as a martial artist to update the choreography, incorporating elements of traditional Asian martial arts into the dancers’ movements. These changes were primarily inspired by a recent talk given at Butler by Phil Chan, one of the co-founders of the organization Final Bow For Yellowface. Aside from just the tea scene, all of the names in the Land of Sweets scene have been renamed to reflect specific sweets rather than nations as a whole. 

“These changes may seem minor,” Flowers said. “However, I feel that this is a major step in the right direction towards diversity, equity and inclusion. Butler University is right up there at the forefront of all of the progress being made across the country in mainstream ballet companies doing anti-racist work and addressing the topic of race relations in the arts.” 

Flowers continues to fight for cultural authenticity in dance, even creating and teaching a course that specifically addresses the issue of social justice within the world of ballet. Although dance faculty such as Flowers have played a strong role in Butler ballet’s re-imagination of “The Nutcracker,” this project has been spearheaded by Butler students within the dance department. 

Brita Gilbert, dance arts administration major, shared her thoughts on what the changes to “The Nutcracker” mean to students within the dance department. 

“Butler Ballet prides itself on being a department that celebrates diversity and supports BIPOC dancers in our company, but claims of inclusion and acceptance cannot be made without taking real action against discrimination,” Gilbert said. “I am thrilled to see that the Butler dance department is taking a stand against racism and discrimination in the arts by removing culturally appropriative movement and changing the names of the cultural dances in ‘The Nutcracker.’”

Gilbert also stressed that the ballet industry has continually faced criticism in regards to its treatment of marginalized communities. 

“Entry into the professional ballet world is difficult and demanding for all dancers, but artists in the BIPOC community experience increased barriers to entry, as well as being burdened with the responsibility of defying long-standing Eurocentric ballet standards,” Gilbert said.

Butler ballet remains committed to lead the charge when it comes to making the dance world a safer and more inclusive place for all individuals, but there remains much more work to be done.

“I am proud of the work that Butler ballet is doing, but the work is not finished, and I look forward to how we can further support and accept all artists in the world of dance,” Gilbert said. 

Ballet students and faculty alike have come together to champion this project, even achieving national recognition for their commitment to cultural authenticity and creating diverse spaces for not just dancers, but for the campus community as a whole.

Not only was this year’s Nutcracker a step in the right direction for diversity, but it yet again reaffirmed Butler Ballet’s commitment to excellence in performance.

As the semester creeps to a close and the holiday spirit washes over the Butler community in waves of snow and peppermint, students continue to take a stand to ensure that this most-wonderful-time-of-the-year remains time for all.

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