Scott D. Pierce: KSL apologizes for airing shockingly racist behavior by Odyssey dancers

(The Salt Lake Tribune) An image captured from KSL's Thursday broadcast shows a group of Odyssey Dance Theatre dancers promoting the troupe’s upcoming performance of its version of “The Nutcracker” — “ReduxNut-Cracker. At City Creek Center, the white women wearing Chinese silk dresses and Asian conical hats folded their hands, bowed and made exaggerated gestures as they hopped past the camera.

When traveling to other parts of the country or other parts of the world, I regularly try to tell people that Utah is not so different from anyplace else. That we’re not living in the 1950s.

Then something happens like what we saw on KSL-TV early Thursday morning.

At 6:42 a.m. on KSL’s local newscast, a group of Odyssey Dance Theatre dancers promoting the troupe’s upcoming performance of its version of “The Nutcracker” — “ReduxNut-Cracker” — appeared at City Creek Center. A group of white women wearing Chinese silk dresses and Asian conical hats, hands folded in front of them, bowed, hopped and made exaggerated gestures.

It looks like at least some of them were wearing eye makeup in an attempt to look Asian. But their behavior is in no way a tribute to Asian culture; it was stereotypical and mocking.

The clip is shockingly racist. There’s just no other way to interpret it.

Shared on Twitter by @TheDiscoUnicorn, a brief clip of the incident was racking up thousands of views on Thursday afternoon — and dozens of comments, many calling it out for being racist.

It’s somewhat shocking that KSL put it on the air.

The station did apologize on Twitter:

“This is from a series of reports KSL did profiling Odyssey Dance Theater’s Nutcracker performance. The women in costume are members of the theater’s cast. In showcasing their upcoming show, we certainly did not intend to offend and sincerely regret any hurt this segment caused.”

KSL vice president/general manager Tanya Vea said the dancers appeared in a segment “on upcoming Christmas festivities at City Creek.” The dancers were there to perform their number from “ReduxNut-Cracker,” which happened a bit later in the newscast. An Odyssey spokeswoman confirmed that the bowing and hopping seen in the clip are not part of the choreography; the women do appear in the costumes.

I’m hoping that nobody at KSL knew beforehand what the dancers were going to do in the clip.

Some of the comments on Twitter try to explain away the dancers’ behavior by pointing out that stereotypical Asian characters were included in the original version of “The Nutcracker,” which dates back to 1892.

That’s true. But it’s not an excuse. Decades ago, blackface was acceptable — it clearly is not today. And what the ODT dancers were seen doing on KSL was indeed what @TheDiscoUnicorn called “yellowface.”

A lot of racist things have been updated over the years. Disney removed the exaggerated African-American servant characters from “Fantasia” and stopped releasing “Song of the South” altogether. After protests, the Fox Movie Channel stopped airing “Charlie Chan” movies — featuring white actors with their eyes taped to look Asian in the title role — 15 years ago.

And many dance companies have dropped the Asian characters from “The Nutcracker”; Ballet West replaced the Asian servants with six boys dressed as monkeys. Earlier this week, artistic director Adam Sklute was quoted in a New York Times story about his efforts to make the performance “much more a celebration of the culture versus a mockery of the culture.”

What’s even more troubling about what happened on KSL is that what the dancers did was not part of the “ReduxNut-Cracker” program. They weren’t performing part of the dance, they were acting out offensive Asian stereotypes.

One Twitter user commented, “I keep reading that white folk are so afraid of transgressing political correctness, they’re practically rooted to the spot in sensitivity. These gals never got the memo, it seems.”

Some will try to minimize calling this racism as political correctness gone overboard. It’s not.

Simple human decency was seriously lacking. At the very least, those involved need to apologize. Not just ODT, but the dancers themselves. And it would be a good idea to remove the Asian characters from the program.

This is the sort of thing that makes Utah look like it’s still in the 1950s. Or maybe the 1850s.