Cracked Nuts

News broke that the Staatsballett in Berlin had canceled this winter’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.

The Staatsballett Berlin has quietly removed Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker from its year-end programme.

Director Christiane Theobald says it contains a Chinese dance and an oriental dance that amount to ‘a clear case of racism’ – even more so since the Berlin production follows Tchaikovsky’s 1892 original.

The Staatsballett disputed this characterization.

THE NUTCRACKER banned? The ultimate Christmas ballet cancelled? In the last few days, various newspapers and social media posts claimed, the Staatsballett Berlin supposedly removed the classic from its repertory without warning.

So it wasn’t canceled? Well, yes, it was for this year, at least, but the decision to do so was made and announced earlier.

Will THE NUTCRACKER be banned/cancelled?
First of all, we can reassure you: THE NUTCRACKER is neither banned nor cancelled. We love the NUTCRACKER! And as a large ballet company, it is our task, indeed our duty, to continue to perform the classics. However, in the summer of 2020 it was already clear that the ballet classic would not be performed in the current season 21/22. This was announced in June 2021 in the season preview.

This makes sense, in light of the fact that one doesn’t put on a ballet overnight and so it requires advance planning in all the usual aspects of rehearsing and putting on a ballet. But then, the announcement (in German) doesn’t say that they will not dance the Nutcracker, but that Don Quixote would be returning to its repertoire. No mention that it would be in lieu of the Nutcracker.

But why?

Why is THE NUTCRACKER not part of the 21/22 season?
It was the artistic director’s decision not to include THE NUTCRACKER in this year’s programme, but DON QUIXOTE, another ballet classic by Marius Petipa in Víctor Ullate’s version. As in other seasons before, THE NUTCRACKER is on hiatus and will return in one of the upcoming seasons. In which version, we will announce in due time.

That it was the artistic director’s decision isn’t exactly a reason, other than to throw Christiane Theobald under the bus if this heads south.

Is THE NUTCRACKER a »clear case of racism«?
We have never claimed that THE NUTCRACKER is racist as a whole. You are welcome to read the interview with director Dr. Christiane Theobald in the Berlin newspaper B.Z. (link), to which all subsequent articles and opinion pieces are based on.

Kind of them to allow us to read Theobald’s interview, but wouldn’t an explanation serve better, particularly given how they tossed in the qualifier “as a whole” when that wasn’t the issue?

So what’s the deal with the Chinese and Arabian dances?
It was brought to our attention that some parts in our current NUTCRACKER version – a reconstruction of the original from 1892 – could be perceived as discriminating. For example, costumes of the Chinese dance are based on costume drawings from that time, which have a caricaturistic touch that has nothing in common with authentic Chinese culture, thus evoking negative stereotypes. There were already complaints from our Berlin audience in 2015, which we would like to take seriously.

Finally. The costume design from 1892 was not authentic, thus “evoking negative stereotypes” of Chinese and Arabian people as represented in a ballet. Whether there were complaints, a proposition of dubious meaning, is unknown, but unsurprising. This is almost nothing that isn’t the target of complaints from people desperately seeking to find racism.

What exactly were authentic costumes for Chinese and Arabian ballet dancers in 1892 remains a mystery, but if the costumes evoked negative stereotypes of Chinese and Arabian ballet dancers, is that a sound reason to cancel the performance of the quintessential Christmas ballet until they come up with a more authentic mode of dress?

That the costumes reflected racial stereotypes isn’t exactly an epiphany. In its review of the Nutcracker, the New York Times raised this problem a few years ago, as reflected in the pictures accompanying the article, and the New York City ballet modified its costumes.

There has been some pushback from purists who argue against altering a work of art in response to changing times — and there is particular sensitivity surrounding Balanchine, whose “Nutcracker” is a widely cherished tradition. But, for the most part, ballet companies around the world seem to be on board.

As the Staatsballett claims that it has been aware of complaints since 2015, and the Balanchine Trust has approved changes to update the costumes to be less offensive, and as other ballet companies have made such changes to modernize the caricaturish appearances (which were most assuredly caricatures), why didn’t the Staatsballett simply change the costumes as others have rather than make a point about canceling the Nutcracker this year with a vague assurance that it would be performed again at some unknown point in the future?

Since we also share the desire to show THE NUTCRACKER again, we see it as our duty to take a closer look at a number of questionable parts, because we don’t want to simply censor them!

Your Staatsballett Berlin

Whether the 1892 caricaturish costumes for the Chinese and Arabian dances were so offensive as to compel this reaction is a matter of opinion. To those for whom any deviation from correctness today is unacceptable, it surely is. This was Racism 101, I was told. Others were less sensitive about it. Regardless of where one falls on the spectrum of sensitivity, it’s a problem easily solved with changes reflecting a more modern vision of how “exotic” people appear.

But the Staatsballett didn’t modify the costumes, while its artistic director explained that the ballet would not be danced because of racism, even though it could have been had she wanted it to be. But Christiane Theobald and the Staatsballett chose, instead, to cancel the Nutcracker.

12 thoughts on “Cracked Nuts

  1. B. McLeod

    So instead, they opted to put on a ballet that makes sport of the mentally ill. Understandable, I suppose, since they didn’t gas Chinese and Arabian people back in the days of the eugenics program.

  2. Howl

    Ballet companies do their own choreography and costuming. As you pointed out, this is a ‘problem’ with an easy solution.

  3. Ross

    If they stage The Nutcracker with authentic costumes, the woke will complain that the dancers are not Chinese or Arabs.

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