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From offensive to inclusive: how Pacific Northwest Ballet put a new spin on George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’

SEATTLE -- For many of us, The Nutcracker is a holiday tradition. The soaring, playful Tchaikovsky score is practically the soundtrack to Christmas, and as for the ballet itself - well, if you want to see visions of sugarplums dancing, there’s really no better option.

But Balanchine’s Nutcracker leaves many audiences cringing because of its depiction of Chinese characters in the famous "Tea" dance. And in 2018, people are starting to speak up - so much so that the New York Times reports the Balanchine Trust, which owns the rights to the George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker choreography, recently approved official changes to the dance.

Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) was years ahead of that particular curve. From before the very first performance, back in 2015, PNB looked at Balanchine’s choreography and decided that some of the elements in "Tea" just wouldn’t suit Seattle audiences.

Nutcracker is meant to be...inclusive and welcoming to everyone who comes through those doors,” PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal explained, hours before 2018’s opening night. “The last thing we would want is where we present something that makes people feel either belittled or alienated or not included in what we think is a beautiful production.”

The Nutcracker is, at its heart, a fantastical romp through a magical world. Without giving too much away, a little girl (Clara or Marie, depending on who’s telling the story) travels to a land where she sees living, dancing treats from all around the world - French bon-bons, Spanish chocolate, Arabian coffee, and Chinese tea, to name a few.

PNB audiences will likely recognize the Peacock performing during Tchaikovsky’s Arabian number. The Peacock was a beloved part of Seattle’s earlier Nutcracker, and Boal says when the company switched to George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, they used costuming to keep the character, while bringing in Balanchine’s choreography for her movements.

Changing the Chinese Tea dance was not quite so easy.

“We didn't want to put anything on the stage that we thought would potentially be offensive to any member of our audience,” Boal says, “[so] we contacted the Balanchine Trust to see if we could make some adjustments that we felt would keep Balanchine’s choreography, which is essentially the legwork; he has classical ballet steps that are really quite brilliant. This gentleman who's the lead has several split jumps that are right on center, and they usually bring the house down. We certainly want to keep that, because it's the dancing part that's so spectacular.

“There are other pieces of choreography in the original version that felt like they were potentially offensive and we wanted to ask the Balanchine Trust if we could remove those pieces so that we would present a 'Tea' dance that was more of our time and more considerate of every member of our audience.”

Boal says the company had to identify which movements were creating an offensive stereotype, replace them, and then record a dancer performing the new version - all in the hopes that the Balanchine Trust would approve the change.

“In this case, very minor changes created a much broader acceptability, and I think really included many more viewers.” Boal says. He adds, it’s a change intended in the spirit of the original choreographer.

“In this day and age I think [George Balanchine] would have made changes to anything that would have been perceived as a racist dance - he would not have wanted that...It’s only fair to him not to represent him as he would have been in 1954 - and to really represent him as he would have wanted to be today, in 2018.”

Boal says Balanchine himself made several changes to the choreography, refining and updating it year after year as the performances added up. And while PNB wouldn’t change anything on a whim, Boal says the company really is listening to audiences’ thoughts and concerns.

“If people do have a bad reaction to what they see, we want to hear it; we want to process it; we want to challenge ourselves to say, ‘Are further changes needed?'

“We have a lot of audience feedback, and I like that, because I think people understand that they can speak up; their voice will be heard.”

While some productions of The Nutcracker have been criticized for the costumes and makeup worn by dancers in "Tea," PNB sticks to normal performance makeup - nothing to significantly alter the dancer’s appearance - and costumes designed with a “reverential...reference to Chinese culture.”

Boal says in the end, it all comes down to making sure that everyone who sees The Nutcracker can imagine themselves in the story.

“It’s a wonderful, uplifting moment - and everyone should feel eligible and part of that.” Boal says. “This is everyone's story. When you look at the cast I hope it represents the society that we live in...and I hope everyone sees themselves in this story.

“It’s not someone else's story, it's their story.”

George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker opens Friday, November 23rd, and runs through Friday, December 28th at McCaw Hall in Seattle. Tickets are available on the PNB's website