Odyssey Dance wins praise for its revamped ‘ReduxNut-Cracker’ after apologizing for offensive use of Asian stereotypes

(Scott D. Pierce | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of the Odyssey Dance Theatre perform "Redux Nut-cracker."

Odyssey Dance Theatre initially didn’t think it owed anyone an apology.

“It’s sad to see people are so easily offended these days,” its Facebook page huffed, after objections that its dancers hopping and bowing in Chinese silk dresses in a November television appearance had promoted old stereotypes.

But Odyssey eventually asked leaders of Utah’s Asian-American community for their help. Odyssey founder and artistic director Derryl Yeager showed them the backdrops and the costumes for “ReduxNut-Cracker,” the production the dancers had been promoting on KSL-TV, and the dancers ran through their number.

The meeting “was difficult at times,” Yeager said. “Being branded a racist is a difficult thing to get through. … I’ve never been through something like this before. I’m not really schooled on how to deal with things that happen like this.”

Yeager had been anxious to show that the offensive segment on KSL didn’t represent the dance performance. But during the meeting, the Asian-American leaders “had some great suggestions,” he said — which led to changes in that part of “ReduxNut-Cracker,” an update of “The Nutcracker” that features everything from ballet to hip-hop, modern dance to tap.

The conical hats the dancers had worn on television are gone. Chinese fans have been added, along with a Chinese dragon. “We kind of reshaped the whole piece, taking in their suggestions,” Yeager said.

And on opening night this week, the reworked Chinese dance number drew praise from leaders who had been shown the original version.

“I cannot say anything is wrong,” said Mary Zang, who serves as president of the Utah Chinese Association and attended the performance. “It is like traditional Chinese dancing. I like it.”

She was impressed by the changes. “The fan is traditionally used in Chinese dancing,” she said. “The dragon is beautiful. Both the fan wave dance and dragon make me smile.”

“They changed it a lot,” said Hubert Huh, who is on the boards of the Asian Association of Utah and the Korean Federation of Utah and also attended the opening. “I didn’t see anything disrespectful about it at all, even though I was looking out for that.”

It’s not an altogether authentically Chinese dance — it is a hip-hop adaptation of “The Nutcracker,” after all — “but at the same time, it’s not problematic,” Yeager said. “That’s the main thing we were shooting for. We just don’t want to offend anybody.”

More than a dozen groups and individuals had signed a petition after Odyssey’s Nov. 14 appearance on KSL’s morning show. Troupe members wearing Chinese silk dresses and Asian conical hats had folded their hands in front of them, bowed, hopped and made goofy, exaggerated gestures — perpetuating stereotypes that mock Asians.

Yeager’s initial reaction was to say the company was “very sorry for the reaction to their appearance” while denying the incident was in any way racist. But he later decided to ask Asian-American leaders for the Nov. 19 meeting.

“We felt we needed to get the people who were offended in the room and talk it through. And say, ‘OK, what, specifically, is the problem? We want to make sure that we’re not doing anything that you find offensive,’” Yeager said.

Nine representatives of the community attended, from groups that included the Asian Association of Utah and the Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce.

Now, Yeager said, “I totally get it that it was very offensive to those who saw it. That was the biggest part of the problem, and we apologized for that numerous times.”

Including apologizing for the non-apology apology: “We had some missteps along the way, but a lot of that comes from ignorance,” Yeager said. “We didn’t say it the right way.”

ODT is owning it now. In the “ReduxNut-Cracker” program, there’s a note admitting that “in a promotional tease for the show, a brief segment was shown which was culturally and racially insensitive.”

The program also includes a statement from Michael Kwan, president of the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association, who is also a justice court judge in Taylorsville.

“We are pleased that ODT’s company and management has made a sincere apology and sought our input to avoid further unfortunate missteps,” Kwan wrote.

Yeager said their input improved the piece.

“All the dancers feel much better about it,” he said. “We’re excited to show it, because it’s actually a little more spectacular now than it was before.”

“ReduxNut-Cracker” continues at Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City through Dec. 22. Visit https://kingsburyhall.utah.edu for tickets.