October brings the opening of both Broadway at the Eccles and Ballet West’s 2019-2020 seasons, with the musical “Miss Saigon” and Balanchine’s “Ballet Russes,” respectively.
“Miss Saigon” is a modern counterpart of Puccini’s “Madam Butterfly” set in Saigon, Vietnam, instead of Nagasaki, Japan. Ballet West is performing three of master choreographer George Balanchine’s important early works, including “Le Chant du Rossignol” (“The Song of the Nightingale”). These two performances illustrate the opposite directions the performing arts are taking in respect to race and culture.
“Miss Saigon” has provided Asian and Asian American actors opportunities to perform and earn living wages on Broadway, where roles for Asian and Asian Americans were and are still in scarcity. However, the play’s underlying narrative, like Puccini’s aforementioned masterpiece, plays on tiresome Asian stereotypes that make them appear inferior, submissive and exotic.
My University of California Berkeley classmate, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Viet Thanh Nguyen, articulated in his Aug. 3 New York Times opinion, “Close the Curtain on ‘Miss Saigon’,” how the musical perpetuates undesirable myths, fantasies and negative perceptions that are hurtful and harmful to the Asian and Asian American community.
Instead of incessantly pressing the repeat or reboot buttons, producers should promote the growing number of new, original and meaningful plays that speak more honestly of the Asian and Asian American experience. Such works include David Henry Hwang’s “Soft Power,” Jason Ma’s “Gold Mountain,” Richard Chang’s “Citizen Wong” and Frances Cowhig’s “The King of Hell’s Palace,” whose protagonist is based on the true heroic life of Utahn Shuping Wang.
In contrast, Ballet West’s Artistic Director Adam Sklute has brought thoughtful and innovative leadership regarding race and culture to Utah’s arts community since his arrival in 2007. Sklute took a candid introspective look at the beloved William Christensen’s choreography of “The Nutcracker” and was troubled by the head bobbing and other Chinese stereotypes in the tea dance.
Instead of treating the piece as untouchable, he respectfully went to the Christensen family to ask and receive permission to use the San Francisco Ballet’s version of the tea dance, which is devoid of these stereotypes.
The original choreography of “Le Chant du Rossignol” from 1925 include elements of head bobbing, feet shuffling and prayer poses, all of which in 2019 merely serve to perpetuate tired, hurtful and false Chinese stereotypes while adding no artistic value from an aesthetic and narrative viewpoint. Cognizant of how today’s audiences would react differently than 1925 audiences, Sklute enlisted the assistance of his high school classmate and friend, Phil Chan, who is a co-founder of the initiative Final Bow to Yellow Face (yellowface.org) which seeks to finally replace Asian caricature with character in the performing arts.
Adam and Phil invited a group of community stakeholders, including myself, to watch a studio rehearsal of “Le Chant du Rossignol” this past August. The piece is beautiful, challenging and engaging but still uses Chinese caricature. The group provided thoughtful and constructive feedback to Adam and Phil, as well as to the London-based and renown dance and design team Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer, who have revived the ballet.
Initially, Hodson and Archer were concerned changing any of the choreography would be disrespectful to Balanchine. Chan offered an analogy that just because Judy Garland sang “Everybody Sing” in blackface in 1938 does not mean Taylor Swift should sing the same song in blackface in 2019 to avoiding being disrespectful to Garland.
Sklute conferred with Hodson and Archer and later wrote to the community stakeholders that Ballet West will employ choreographic changes to address the group’s specific concerns. Moreover, Ballet West will add an article in the playbill, essays on its website and a lobby display to discuss these changes and the history and rationale behind them. Chan will also join Sklute for an opening night discussion on cultural appropriation.
Sklute and Ballet West have designed the blueprint for arts organizations worldwide to actively engage rather than dismiss communities that have traditionally been misrepresented in theater and the arts. The process is difficult and oftentimes frustrating, but the compounding results will be increased equity and diversity and a better theater experience for all.
Max Chang is a Salt Lake native and current chair of the Zoo Arts and Parks Tier One Advisory Board and board member of the Spike 150 Foundation. He is also the co-executive producer of “Gold Mountain,” which was performed in Salt Lake City and Ogden as part of the 150th anniversary celebration of the completion of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad.