By DouG Fullington and Phil Chan
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.
Certain physical caricatures of Asians by Westerners have persisted across film, vaudeville and the performing arts throughout history. When translated to the stage, the Chinese tradition of bound feet became small shuffling steps, while the humble bow gesture became an exaggerated head bobbing, and the two raised index fingers.
At one time, these movements may have been attempts at imagined Chinese character dance, but they've warped into physical caricature meant to create a comic, simplistic or grotesque impression.
We've come across two theories about "the fingers." One idea is that the gesture is based on a chopstick dance, and that the individual digits represent chopsticks. The other is that porcelain makers at the turn of the 19th century wanted to show their virtuosity as artists, and would create porcelain figurines ("China") with the people depicted holding up individual delicate fingers, something quite hard to do.
As "Nutcracker Nation" author Jennifer Fisher wrote last year, "One of the most common of the ballet world's efforts to signal Chinese-ness is a particular hand gesture—a sort of two-finger salute with the index digits of each hand stretched out to opposite sides like a peripheral vision test. Any Nutcracker aficionado will recognize it as 'Chinese,' but as a dance scholar, I can tell you the gesture does not exist in any version of traditional dance in China…The finger-pointing is mostly an example of heedless insensitivity to stereotyping."
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.
Agrippina Vaganova in “The Fairy Doll”
The Chinese dance in Western productions of The Nutcracker
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.
If your production features unnecessarily caricatured mannerisms, consider going back to the music to find inspiration. Is anything truly lost if the hand gestures are altered slightly or a little bit of head bobbing is removed? What are other spritely and playful ballet steps are suggested by the different layers of music that can be celebratory for everyone?
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)