Millicent Hodson has spent decades researching influential ballets, gathering notes, reviews and memories to envision choreography from performances that seemed lost to history.
Ballet West chose “Le Chant,” along with two other early works Balanchine created for the Ballet Russe, to open its 2019-20 season this month. That meant it faced another decision: Should dancers portraying Chinese characters perform movements from the original that reflect racist stereotypes — such as shuffling their feet and bobbing their heads?
In August, artistic director Adam Sklute invited Hodson, art historian Kenneth Archer, her partner in reconstructions, and members of Utah’s Asian American community to consider that question, early in rehearsals of the program that opens Friday, Oct. 25, at the Capitol Theatre.
“On the one hand, we can say that it’s, in some way, demeaning to these cultures,” Hodson said during the conversation, after dancers performed excerpts of the original choreography. “But on the other hand, this comes out of the cultural context. I would feel very lacking in integrity to alter it.”
“But there’s a very fine line between what we call Asian and what we call orientalism,” said Ami Nordlund, diversity commissioner for the city of Ogden.
And Phil Chan — co-founder of Final Bow for Yellowface, which works to eliminate anti-Asian racism in the arts — compared the movements to Judy Garland performing in blackface in 1930s movie musicals.
“She’s a great singer, but nobody would say, ‘Well, this is something that we should revive with real people on stage,’” Chan said. “If you want to see it, the video’s on YouTube. But nobody is saying, ‘Well, let’s have a blackface festival in America because it’s a part of our American tradition.’”
‘Don’t touch the art’
As Ballet West becomes the second company worldwide to stage the reconstruction, Sklute decided its production will not include the stereotypical movements, including the original’s gesture of hands held in a prayer pose.
Instead of using makeup to try to make the dancers appear Asian, producers will create an “almost masklike look” affected by the Peking Opera. Sklute is still working with Hodson and Archer to perfect that style, just days before the Salt Lake City — and American — premiere.
Sklute considers the alterations “minor changes.” He notes the re-creation of “Le Chant” by Hodson and Archer itself contains variations from the original; its choreography is considered about 75% accurate, he said.
“I feel like we can still present a historical work that gives relevance to it while not insulting anybody,” he said.
On Sept. 29, Ballet West dancers performed the revised excerpts at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, followed by a panel discussion. Audience reaction ranged from heartfelt thanks to condemnation.
“There were plenty of people who were appalled with the idea” of making any changes “even if they understood that the choreography was not 100% accurate,” said Sklute. “People were saying, ‘Don’t touch the art. Don’t mess with it.’
“These are the people who applaud Ado Annie being in a wheelchair in the latest version of ‘Oklahoma!,’ but it’s OK to have shuffling feet and bobbling heads in ‘Chant du Rossignol’”? he said. “I mean, we have to really look at that.”
(Ali Stoker, who uses a wheelchair, won a Tony earlier this year for her portrayal of Ado Annie in Broadway’s latest revival of “Oklahoma!”)
Sklute said the disagreement was “largely along racial and generational lines” — those who opposed making any changes were generally older and white; those who favored updates were younger and non-white.
Intent versus impact
Hodson had made it clear in Salt Lake City that she didn’t want to see any deletions.
At the August discussion, after Asian American community members explained how the bobbing and shuffling struck them as racist, Hodson brought the discussion to a sudden, momentary halt when she said, “Something that I think I’m hearing, which I’m very encouraged by, is that no one is suggesting that anything change.”
Archer and Hodson maintained that neither Hans Christian Andersen, who wrote “The Nightingale” in 1843, nor Balanchine, who choreographed the ballet in 1925, intended to be racist, saying the men were simply a product of their times.
“The question is intent versus impact,” Chan countered. “It’s taken on a second meaning here in America. … The context has changed. We as a society have moved on.”
The cultural context of the foot shuffling, Nordlund noted, was the practice of foot binding, which was a way of subjugating women.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘We’re staying true to the artwork of the original artist by keeping this in it,’” Nordlund said. “And it’s something else to go back to the women of Asia and say, ‘Where did this piece of history come from, and why is it included?’”
Hodson and Archer said that when their re-creation of “Le Chant” was produced in Europe in 1999, no one raised any objections. And Hodson said the shuffling and head-bobbing didn’t offend Chinese citizens to whom she has spoken.
But Ballet West is performing in the United States, not China, community members said.
“And Asian Americans and Asians were very different,” said Max Chang, chief operating officer of American Estate Management Corp. He grew up being mocked and bullied by non-Asian peers who shuffled and bobbed, he said. “We’ve been bombarded with it our entire lives, so it’s difficult.”
Head bobbing is “kind of hurtful” and “almost like a microaggression,” said Michael Kwan, president of the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association. “I’ve yet to see any Asian person actually do that.”
And in the last few years, Sklute said, “our whole outlook has changed so dramatically that this must be an issue that we discuss now. We all knew that blackface was not acceptable. But the same discussion about Asian representation has only really just started. I see it as a very positive development.”
Characters, not caricatures
Balletgoers are most familiar with the Asian characters in “The Nutcracker” and “Madame Butterfly,” Chan said. And both include imagery hurtful to those of Asian descent.
“If this is the only way your race has been portrayed — if you’re always just shuffling and bowing, or you’re Fu Manchu and it’s never anything else — that’s exhausting,” Chan said. “‘Madame Butterfly’ would be OK if there were 50 other operas about Japanese women. Unfortunately, it’s the only opera about a Japanese woman.”
But, asked Ballet West dancer Joshua Whitehead, should paintings, films and books now deemed offensive be burned?
“If we keep changing, adjusting … the painting, the play, to where everyone’s comfortable, how do we tell the history behind it?” asked Whitehead, the only black dancer at the conversation, and one of a handful of dancers of color who attended. The group of dancers who performed the excerpts was predominantly white.
“What’s great about performing art,” Sklute responded, “is that it’s living art. This is not painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.”
“Static arts” like painting, sculpture and movies “have to remain time capsules of when they were created,” Sklute added. “But we in the performing arts have an opportunity to, perhaps, relook at how things are done.”
Ballets are continually adapted by different companies for different dancers. The racist stereotypes in “The Nutcracker,” for example, are disappearing from performances. Ballet West was on the forefront of that effort, too, changing its widely acclaimed version in 2013 to eliminate head bobbing and transform a stereotypical Asian male into a warrior.
Members of Odyssey Dance Theater made similar shuffling and hopping movements during a television appearance last November, outraging members of the Asian American community and others. The company eventually apologized and made changes to “ReduxNut-Cracker,” its version of “The Nutcracker.”
Chan also pointed to the comic opera “The Mikado,” which “everybody was doing in the 1950s without a second thought.” But it’s been adapted to make it less racist.
He commended Ballet West for being proactive. “Especially at this time now where the [Chinese] are a particularly demonized group,” Chan said, “it’s really important for us in the performing arts to make sure that our work reflects characters as opposed to caricatures.”
Toward ‘a greater understanding’
The aim of Final Bow for Yellowface is not to relegate works like “Le Chant” to the past, but to find ways to perform them now and into the future.
“We’re saying there’s artistic merit to this. There’s a universal human truth embedded in this work, if you can get through the caricature,” Chan said. “It’s challenging to think about race and to talk about race if you’ve never had to. It’s a lot easier to dismiss it by saying, ‘Oh, you’re just oversensitive’ or ‘You’re just being overly P.C. [politically correct].’”
Sklute said in choosing “Le Chant,” Ballet West didn’t want to shy away from that conversation.
“I want this aspect of the dialogue to be addressed,” Sklute said. “I want people talking about this. I’d rather be in the eye of the storm of this dialogue where, hopefully, we can come to a greater understanding, a greater clarity, a greater enlightenment on what is right and what is wrong. And you can’t do it if you don’t present it.”
And he believes it’s vital for the future of ballet as an art form.
“All those people who are bemoaning the fact that ballet is a dying art form and [asking] how do we get younger audiences into our houses — you can’t say that in the same breath as saying, ‘We don’t modify anything for our current audience.’”
BALANCHINE’S BALLETS RUSSES
Ballet West’s season-opening production of “Le Chant du Rossignol,” “Apollo” and “Prodigal Son,” three ballets by the legendary choreographer George Balanchine, premieres Friday, Oct. 25.
When • Friday, Oct. 25; Saturday, Oct. 26; Thursday, Oct. 31; and Saturday, Nov. 2; at 7:30 p.m. There’s also a 2 p.m. matinee on Nov. 2.
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $19-$99, available at boxoffic.balletwest.org; by calling 801-869-6900 or 801-355-ARTS (2787); and at the box office.
Opening night dinner • On Oct. 25 from 5 to 7 p.m., Ballet West is hosting Dinner with Matisse at the Modern West Fine Art Gallery at 412 S. 700 West, Salt Lake City. The event will include a buffet dinner and a discussion, led by Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute, about the musicians, painters and choreographers behind Ballets Russe.
Tickets are $125 per person and can be purchased at boxoffice.balletwest.org or at the box office. (Tickets to the dinner/discussion do not include admission to the performance that evening.)