Scott D. Pierce: Odyssey Dance apologizes to anyone offended by racist TV appearance — but denies it was racist

( The Salt Lake Tribune) An image captured from KSL's Thursday broadcast.

Under criticism for a blatantly racist TV appearance by members of his company, Odyssey Dance Theatre’s artistic director responded Friday that the company is “very sorry for the reaction to their appearance” but adamantly and repeatedly denied that the incident was in any way racist.

It’s one of those non-apology apologies. And others disagree. Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski tweeted that the segment, seen on KSL-Channel 5 on Thursday morning, "was incredibly disrespectful and not in keeping with the values of” the city. She added she hopes Odyssey "reconsiders this type of caricature of the Asian community in their upcoming show.”

While the city’s Salt Lake City Arts Council does not provide taxpayer funding for Odyssey, Salt Lake County just approved a $23,000 award for the company from Zoo, Arts and Parks (ZAP) sales tax proceeds.

The Utah Cultural Alliance — which lobbies on behalf of arts organizations — weighed in, encouraging performing groups “to be sensitive to how outdated representations may continue misinformed cultural stereotypes” and to adapt works “to accommodate current sensibilities and dispel stereotypes."

A sizable list of Asian-American groups in Utah signed on to the UCA’s statement — the Asian Association of Utah, the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association, the Utah chapter of the Chinese Association of Science & Technology, the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants, the Kulturang Pilipino Ensemble of Utah, the Jung Hing Lion Dance Association, the Utah chapter of OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates, the United Chinese Association of Utah and the Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce.

The brief segment featured Odyssey dancers — white women wearing Chinese silk dresses and Asian conical hats, hands folded in front of them — bowing, hopping and making exaggerated gestures that enforced Asian stereotypes. That led to immediate criticism on social media, where it was called “racist” and “yellowface.”

Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, tweeted, “Yellowface is never OK,” adding that she’s holding ODT “accountable and demanding an apology.”

According to KSL, the ODT dancers were on the newscast to promote “upcoming Christmas festivities” at City Creek Center in downtown Salt Lake City, and the station issued a statement that it “certainly did not intend to offend and sincerely regret any hurt this segment caused.”

In an emailed response to The Salt Lake Tribune, ODT founder/artistic director Derryl Yeager said, “We are sorry that there were those that were offended — it certainly was not our intent.”

According to Yeager, the dancers “were not intentionally mocking the Asian culture but [were caught] somewhat off guard and left exposed in an improvisational moment. What appeared on the screen can certainly be thought of as inappropriate — but there was no malice or racial overtone intended. We apologize for that.”

Frankly, it’s even more troubling that the dancers' first instinct was to mock Asians. And whatever their intentions, that’s what they were doing.

This came after someone posting as “Odyssey Dance Theatre" on the group’s Facebook page on Thursday night responded to criticism by writing, “It’s sad to see people are so easily offended these days.”

(Facebook post) This was the response to criticism on the Odyssey Dance Theatre Facebook page.

Asked repeatedly who posted that response, ODT was unable or unwilling to respond. That post, along with others expressing outrage, were later scrubbed from the Facebook page.

In his emailed response, Yeager wrote, “The suggestion that this moment constitutes racism at its worst is an unfair and undeserved accusation.”

Yeager argued that “The Nutcracker’s” Chinese dance “has been performed since 1892” and that Odyssey’s “ReduxNut-cracker” version “represents the Asian culture as strong women who have martial arts abilities with a hip hop flair. NO ONE is making fun of Chinese in this dance!”

“The calls for taking the Chinese dance out of ‘The Nutcracker’ strikes at the very heart of the inclusive intent of the entire piece. If we remove the Chinese dance, then we must also remove the Russian, the Arabian, the Spanish also — and then there is no longer a ‘Nutcracker.’”

As reported in The Salt Lake Tribune and The New York Times, other dance companies — including Ballet West — have adapted the Chinese dance to make it less offensive. And the Utah Cultural Alliance urged arts organizations in the state “to use the creativity and empathy that are hallmarks of our crafts to enact new and compassionate works of art that respect the best of the creative legacies we work with regularly, but improve upon the respect and reverence we show to our fellow humans.”

Good advice. Unfortunately, before you can solve a problem you have to admit there is one, and that hasn’t happened at Odyssey Dance Theatre.