Utah’s Odyssey Dance Theatre apologizes after criticism of its portrayal of Asian characters, promises to revise ‘Nutcracker’ adaptation

Screen grab from KSL's Thursday broadcast.

Odyssey Dance Theatre apologized for its “misinformed cultural stereotypes” and promised to revise a scene in its upcoming alternative performance based on "The Nutcracker” on Wednesday — one week after the company was criticized for its racist portrayal of the Asian characters in the play.

"Odyssey would also like to extend this apology to the entire Asian community and anyone else whom we may have offended,” said Derryl Yeager, the troupe’s founder and artistic director, in a statement.

The company came under fire for the performance — called “ReduxNut-Cracker” — after some of its dancers appeared on KSL’s local newscast to promote the show. The performers, a group of white women, were wearing Chinese silk dresses and Asian conical hats with their hands folded while they bowed, hopped and made exaggerated gestures. Some of them also seemed to be wearing eye makeup in an attempt to look Asian.

Several commenters online called out the brief clip for being racist and questioned why KSL aired it. The station quickly apologized saying: “We certainly did not intend to offend and sincerely regret any hurt this segment caused.”

An Odyssey spokeswoman said at the time that the bowing and hopping the women did for the TV segment was not part of the show’s choreography.

The company’s apology Wednesday says that the dancers and directors met with nine representatives of Utah’s Asian-American community this week to discuss the scene and ways to update it.

“The entire Odyssey Dance Theatre organization welcomed the opportunity to meet with these community leaders to ensure that Odyssey is not perpetrating harmful and hurtful depictions of their community,” Yeager said. “We were interested and anxious to learn from those involved about our misinformed cultural stereotypes so we can adapt our works to accommodate current sensibilities moving forward.”

The statement says the play will be revised with that feedback, including changing the costumes “to fit proper social class distinctions,” adding a new “cultural element” and making “other choreographic adjustments.” The company will also send the community groups a recording with the updates for review before performances start on Dec. 12 at Kingsbury Hall.

“We really appreciated their thoughtful ideas and look forward to presenting a new and improved Chinese Dance this year,” Yeager said.

The Asian characters are included in the original version of “The Nutcracker,” which dates back to 1892, but many companies have removed the scene or replaced the characters to not mock a culture.

Michael Kwan, president of the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association, sent out a statement from the nine groups that met with Odyssey, which included the Asian Association of Utah and the Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce. He thanked those who signed the petition for the company to address their concerns.

“I believe that the apology was sincere,” Kwan said. “It was clear to me that this incident was grounded in ignorance and not malice. … They seemed to want to present a portrayal that is not culturally insensitive. But they will definitely need our help to get there.”

Kwan said those in the community will be more productive if they work with rather than vilify the troupe.

“ODT, to their credit, has committed to continue to update their performance to truly bring this story into ‘the present day’ for modern audiences including more accurate portrayals of the various racial communities,” he added. “We will work with them to ensure that they fulfill that commitment successfully.”

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