Celebration Or Appropriation: Ballet West Works To Bring Chinese Tea Dance Into 21st Century
This year marks the 75th anniversary of Salt Lake City dance company Ballet West performing Willam Christensen’s The Nutcracker. In recent years, there’s been a push to update some of its choreography and costumes deemed racist. One of the most-well known of these scenes is the ballet’s Chinese tea dance. Adam Sklute is the artistic director for Ballet West, and he has helped to modernize the Nutcracker.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: Why was the Chinese Tea dance from Ballet West founder Willam Christensen’s 1944 Nutcracker problematic?
Adam Sklute: There was one man who sort of shuffled around the stage, and then he would do some spectacular leaps. He had a long braid and a sort of long mustache — sort of Fu Manchu style. Then there were four women with parasols who spun their parasols and bobbed their heads from side to side.
Looking at it, I thought, ‘This is not going to work,’ as we look into presenting this now for our 21st century audiences.
CB: How has Ballet West modernized the Chinese dance in recent years?
AS: So I went to the Christiansen family and asked if I could interpolate Lew Christensen's [Willam’s brother’s] version into Willam Christensen's production. Lew Christensen's version depicted a Chinese warrior battling one of those wonderful street dragons. That version still had some quaintness to it.
In the last couple of years, what we did is work really hard to re-evaluate how we presented the warrior. My wig and makeup master Yancey Quick and I went together looking through old Chinese masks used in the Peking Opera, and we settled on one of a warrior mask that covered only three quarters of the face.
Instead of the person wearing a mask, we decided to paint it on. So it's in very stark white, black and red. It created a very strong and powerful look as a warrior, a historically accurate one that honored and celebrated Chinese culture, but also kept the naturalness of the person doing it, so that there was no question of the racial identity of this person. And that, I felt, was being much more inclusive.
CB: How have you found the line between celebrating a culture, as you've said, and appropriating a culture in dance?
AS: Appropriation, in my opinion, is more taking that culture and presenting it in a way that you want to present it. And celebrating that culture is trying to present the culture in a manner that is accurate in representation. There's a very fine line.
It's a particular issue that we're dealing with right now in the performing arts. As I always say, the static art has no option but to be a time capsule of when it was presented: painting, sculpture, even film. That is what it is. But in the performing arts, we have an opportunity to re-evaluate how we do this and how we look at things.
CB: The Nutcracker is kind of a strange story, if you think about it. It's a little bit psychedelic. We're dancing with candies and tea and coffee. You've got the Chinese Tea dance. You also have Spanish and Russian dances, and then there's also the Arabian coffee dance, traditionally with veils and skimpy outfits. Are there any thoughts or conversations happening about redoing choreography and costuming there?
AS: We've started that conversation, and, in fact, a lot of companies around the world that I know of have started that conversation.
In terms of a celebration, when I look at it, it's less problematic to me than the Chinese dance was, because in terms of costuming, it does very much match what I have seen in belly dancing performers in the Middle East. But why does it always have to be this sort of sensual and sinewy kind of presentation?
It's the balance of respecting the history of the art while making it more palatable for a 21st century audience.
CB: While efforts to eliminate yellow face and ballet are a step, for decades the dance form has traditionally been the realm of wealthy white people. What else is Ballet West doing to make it more inclusive to minorities and people who have been traditionally excluded from ballet?
AS: The biggest thing that I try and do is really work to expand the diversity on the stage and in the academy as well. It is an expensive art form. We now work to offer scholarships and to broaden the range of scholarships that we offer. We're also now presenting in our play bills pages in both Spanish and English. So all of these things are little things that I hope will have a greater and greater effect.