Here is an excerpt from an essay by dance scholar Doug Fullington and Phil Chan about the history of the Nutcracker as well as proposed solutions.
Origins of The Nutcracker
The original Nutcracker was a production of the Imperial Theater and premiered on December 6, 1892 at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia. The ballet was largely the work of Marius Petipa (1818-1910), who developed the scenario from Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 retelling of E.T.A. Hoffman’s story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King (1816). Petipa also wrote instructions for Tchaikovsky for the composition of the music and created the order of dances. Much of the choreography (at least from the Waltz of the Snowflakes onward), however, was made by Petipa’s assistant ballet master, Lev Ivanov (1834-1901).
Along with the Buffoon’s Dance, Ivanov’s original Chinese dance was one of the more popular and critically acclaimed numbers in the production, receiving an encore at the 1892 premiere, as detailed in these press reviews:
Dances are introduced in a divertissement, in which chocolate dances in the form of a Spanish pas headed by Miss [Marie] Petipa I—a dance little successful in its composition or with the audience—coffee in the form of an Arabic Dance, full of eastern languor and plastic poses, for which Miss [Nadezhda] Petipa II is little suited—and tea, in which the graceful Miss [Maria] Anderson turned out best of all, performing her Chinese pas so characteristically and nicely that it had to be repeated.
Miss Anderson, dancing in this Chinese manner, was best of all. What a charming Chinese girl she was!
What is the "Chinese manner"?
But what is the “Chinese manner” and what about the dance was “characteristic”? The dance was choreographed for a lead couple and four ensemble couples. The Stepanov notation of the dance includes details only for legs and feet, plus a ground plan and some prose instructions for partnering. The notation confirms the movements were classical ballet steps, fast and intricate and with the literal musicality common in 19th-century ballet. The answer to our question, therefore, must lie in the movements of the upper body.
A clue comes from another press review of a performance in October 1911, this one suggesting the dance was comedic:
Elsa Vill and Vasily Stukolkin, those talented comics of the ballet stage, perform the Chinese dance, Tea, with infectious joy. Vill is charming. Her caricature is at times unequalled. If I am not mistaken, her feet are the daintiest and smallest, and how they sing and laugh!
While the Stepanov notation provides us with an incomplete picture of the dance, a photo of Agrippina Vaganova in the Chinese dance from the 1903 St. Petersburg ballet, The Fairy Doll, may depict one element of the “Chinese manner”: pointed index fingers (see below, left; the sketch of the costume by Léon Bakst is on the right). That this characteristic hand position has an element of many Nutcracker Chinese dances suggests it may also have been a feature of Ivanov’s Chinese dance.
Russian perceptions of Chinese people
How were Chinese people perceived in Russia in the 1890s? This question is broad, but Russian- Chinese relations in the second half of the 19th century provide context. By the middle of the century, China’s economy and military lagged far behind that of colonial powers. China therefore was forced into unequal treaties with Western countries and also Russia (for example, the 1858 Treaty of Aigun between the Russian Empire and the Qing Dynasty). The resulting humiliation and anger felt by the Chinese people would explode with the two Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion and culminate in the 1911 revolution that marked the beginning of the Republic of China.
While Russia was fascinated by Chinese culture and enjoyed Chinese imports such as tea, silk, porcelain, and cotton, Chinese people in Russia represented a country that was weak and subservient—a country that had been forced to submit not only to Russia, but also to Japan and Britain. The influx into Russia of migrant workers fleeing persecution in China was met with growing anti-migrant sentiment. This would later be strengthened by the notion of the “Yellow Peril” in the early 20th century. The growing power of Japan also contributed to unease about the potential strength and threat of Far East countries. That a Chinese dance was comedic, that its effect was one of charm, grace and laughter, mirrors Russia’s enjoyment of Chinese goods, but likely at the expense of respect for Chinese people. Chinese women were regarded as beautiful, but also doll-like and subservient; Chinese men, with their long braided queues they had been forced to wear as a sign of submission to the authority of the Manchus, were regarded as effeminate.
The Chinese dance in Western productions of The Nutcracker
Despite its early popularity and technical brilliance, the Ivanov Chinese dance appears not to have been retained in early Western productions of The Nutcracker that were based on the Maryinsky original. These included those set by Nikolai Sergeyev (using the Stepanov notations) for the Vic-Wells Ballet (later The Royal Ballet; London, 1934) and Alexandra Fedorova for Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (New York City, 1940). Perhaps the demands of the choreography were too great for Western dancers at the time.
Instead, the caricature—the “Chinese manner”—was retained in dances of lesser choreographic complexity. Dancers were regularly represented as one-note—doll-like, often moving as automatons—with raised index fingers and faces made up to exaggerate Chinese features, included slanted eyes. Black wigs and the degrading queue for men were also common elements. The Chinese dance often is the only Nutcracker dance in which performers are asked to wear makeup and wigs intended to make them look like they are members of a race other than their own.
We have our own history in America of demonizing Asians. The California Gold Rush of 1848 – 1855 precipitated a huge influx of Chinese laborers into the West Coast. As the gold supply dried up, hostility towards foreigners increased, and the Chinese became the scapegoats of depressed wages. The anti-Chinese backlash came to a head under labor leader Denis Kearney of the Workingman’s Party and California governor John Bigler. In local propaganda, the image of the Chinese “coolie” began popping up; with his hat and queue, this cunning cheap laborer presented a great perceived threat to the previously homogenous European American population. It is in the anti-Chinese propaganda that went along with these sentiments that we begin to see the precursors of the caricature in The Nutcracker’s Tea. Adopting a caricature of the Chinese in our cartoons, propaganda, and theatrical productions helped us justify treating these new immigrants as less than full Americans, or even less than human. While the Act II divertissement in The Nutcracker from 1892 was doubtfully created as a minstrel show, polluted imagery of the Chinese slowly seeped into our productions as an easy (arguably lazy) way to show audiences “Chinese.”
Where are we today?
In our quest in classical ballet to look back to preserve tradition, we sometimes forget that the art we are reviving did not exist in a social vacuum, and that there are social consequences today to the 1890s symbols we choose to put on stage. The conversation is relevant in America today in the context of our history of misrepresenting non-White races to keep them from power. No wonder Asians ranked lowest in “personality” at Harvard admissions, it took 25 years since “Joy Luck Club” for Hollywood to see an all-Asian cast in “Crazy Rich Asians,” and for many parts of America, the only exposure to “Asian” culture is inauthentic Chinese food - and the Nutcracker. In the context of America’s looming international tension with China, it would do a service to our communities for Asians on our stages be portrayed with more nuance than they have been allowed through outdated portrayals from the 19th century.
The questions every artistic leader needs to ask themselves are:
How can we portray “China” in a creative and fun way that doesn’t include symbols and representations of Asians that have been polluted elsewhere?
How can we balance tradition and classical choreography with respectful portrayals of Asians? With simple changes to make-up and costuming, does the choreography now take on a different tone?
Are there elements of Chinese culture that can be respectfully appropriated so that reliance on caricature is not necessary? (Is the Fu Manchu your only option? Consider the inclusion of dragons, acrobatics, dancing carp, dancing porcelain tea cups, or even the Monkey King as potential solutions)
To illustrate the difference between caricature and character, we love this example from the 1999 film “Topsy Turvey,” which follows the English Gilbert and Sullivan as they create their operetta “The Mikado" set in exotic Japan. This scene encapsulates the tension between creating character over caricature that is present every time a performing arts group seeks to portray a race other than their own.
We love this version from San Francisco Ballet! The make-up is respectful, the costuming is playful yet evocative (the queue hairstyle is reflected subtly in his tunic? It's suggests China without hitting you over the head. The dragon is beautiful and does the job of making it clear where this dance is from), and the choreography has a martial arts and acrobatic influence, yet it still requires very strong classical technique. For an American city that has a large Asian American population, this company’s Nutcracker set’s the perfect tone (Watch starting at 56 minutes in)
Thanks to Richard Greene and Marian Smith for their contributions to the editing of this article.