Act two: a flute trill hurries over a plodding bassoon, chased by string pizzicato, a merry sound that sounds “fun,” “festive,” and “not authentically Chinese“—in this way, not unlike your average takeout, particularly in the rapidity of its delivery. At just about a minute long, Chinese Tea is the shortest divertissement in The Nutcracker. Blink your eyes or blow your nose, and it’s over. But for many people of Asian descent, whether on stage or in the audience, the sound of Chinese Tea is about as festive as a dentist’s drill, and that minute of choreography—which in most renditions includes bowing, scraping, shuffling, head bobbing, and finger jabbing in costumes that are orientalist at best—is an annual testament to centuries of exclusion, objectification, fetishization, and humiliation. Merry Christmas.
Although The Nutcracker is now a fixture on American stages—so much so that most ballet companies rely on income from the holiday ballet to fund the rest of their season—the ballet was not a hit when it premiered in 1892 in Russia. Excerpts of the ballet were performed in England and America in the 1930s and 40s, but motion pictures and television were instrumental to its present ubiquity in popular culture, particularly the 1940 Disney film Fantasia, which festooned the Tchaikovsky score with animated visions of dancing fairies, flora, fungi, and fauna. (As a testament to its obscurity at the time, the narrator describes The Nutcracker as a ballet “nobody performs nowadays.”) The first full-length American production, choreographed by Willam Christiansen and based on Russian versions he had seen, premiered at San Francisco Ballet in 1944, though it did not enter the annual repertoire until 1949. George Balanchine—who had visited the Disney studios in 1939 and seen the Fantasia animation in progress—premiered his iconic production for New York City Ballet in 1954. Whether an influence upon or merely one example of how people of Asian descent were popularly portrayed in a country where people of Asian descent could not become citizens until 1952, Fantasia’s depiction of the variation, which features a comic family of petite slant-eyed mushrooms shuffling, hopping, and bowing, has worked its way into Nutcracker vernacular.
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago associate artistic director Jessica Tong was watching Fantasia with her young son last summer. “We got to the Nutcracker part, and we’re watching these adorable little bowing bobbing mushrooms, like . . . aren’t they . . . cute. . .?” she recalls. “With everything that’s going on in the world, it’s hard to take yourself out of that conversation. I was watching the mushrooms and thinking, ‘I totally accepted that as a kid.’ I love Fantasia. And I love watching the Nutcracker. It is kid-friendly and family-friendly. People see their siblings in it. It has beautiful pastel sets and sparkles and ushers in the holiday season. I think it can be magical—and exclusionary.”
Chicago stages have witnessed Tong’s inimitable musicality, charisma, and artistry for years, first as a dancer with Hubbard Street 2 from 2004 to 2007, then with HSDC from 2007 to 2017. Upon her retirement from the stage, she was promoted to rehearsal director and, in 2020, to associate artistic director, a role in which she has helped develop much of the last year’s pandemic programming, including the dance film series presented free to the public, community weeks of free open classes, the 10×10 Crossbody Connections in partnership with Chicago Dancemakers Forum, and a continued partnership with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In her last performance at the Harris Theater, Tong danced the late great Claire Bataille‘s signature solo Georgia, choreographed by HSDC founder Lou Conte, who praised her interpretation. Yet Fantasia’s mushrooms triggered memories in Tong’s early performance experience dancing The Nutcracker with Ballet West in Salt Lake City.
“I remember the older girls in the cast would have to do the makeup for the younger children. They have this basic palette they use for all the kids in the party scene. The rehearsal director pulled me aside and said, ‘We have to do your makeup special.'” A discussion on contour and color ensued as Tong sat with her face tilted back at an uncomfortable angle in the makeup chair. “I carried it with me,” she says. “I don’t think badly of this person or the company, but it was weird for a 10-year-old to have it said that her makeup needed to be done differently to homogenize her to look like the other kids—because I looked so different.”
Years later, as an apprentice at BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio, Tong noted a counterpart to the way ballet companies wanted Asian faces to appear. Cast in the Chinese Tea variation, her makeup was again a focal point. “I had to do my makeup differently to accentuate different features. The eyeliner was done in a certain way. You had to paint the face a lighter white to present more ‘porcelain.’ I thought it was funny I’d have to do my makeup one way or another to be in this ballet,” she says, adding, “That influenced my makeup at Hubbard Street, which was minimal. I hardly did any makeup at all! We would sweat it off anyway.”
As of 2020, Disney began to include a disclaimer on Fantasia, as well as other early animated pictures: “This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together. Disney is committed to creating stories with inspirational and aspirational themes that reflect the rich diversity of the human experience around the globe.”
With many dance companies on a pandemic pause the same year, the time seemed ripe to Tong for reconsidering this chestnut in dance—as well as the impact such portrayals have on society. “My original idea was to tackle every divertissement in The Nutcracker, to have a ‘take back’ moment and experiment to see what would happen,” she says. After discussion with the HSDC equity, diversity, and inclusion team, the company decided to start small and focused. “We decided to tackle Chinese Tea first—not to ignore the fact that I am Chinese. I think that plays a part for sure: I can relate to it and speak to it from my experience. If we’re able to, then we’ll try our hand at reimagining other variations.”
The company invited three choreographers of Chinese descent who have created work on HSDC and HS2 in the past: Yin Yue, artistic director of YY Dance Company in New York City; Edwaard Liang, artistic director of BalletMet; and Peter Chu, artistic director of chuthis in Las Vegas. Each choreographer led class and a choreographic exploration over Zoom in short processes lasting just three days in September, October, and February. “I said, ‘Do whatever you want. What do you want to say? What do you want to make of this experience?'” says Tong. “We gave them the option to any version of the music. Yin actually chose the version everybody is using. She chose it because it was the longest version she could find—she said it was the one that had ‘a little more air and space to play with.’ And the parameters really were just to play—to bring their own perspectives, experiences, vocabularies into it and not hold back.”
The resulting dances were revelatory for the commissioning company and the choreographers alike. “They’re not final products, not meant to go on stage, but when Yin was showing the work, I was like, ‘This is blowing my mind,'” says Tong. “The music is so triggering. You have this very specific picture in your head. This dance felt like something more than that. Edwaard Liang came in. Then Peter Chu. They had their processes, and we did some interviews with them after. I was very humbled and moved to hear that they had a meaningful experience within it. There were things they hadn’t thought about or confronted or had the time to process. To hear that was really awesome for me. And something changed within myself.”
“Ed expressed in his interview afterwards, ‘I put a lot of pressure on myself, questioning, ‘Is this too Asian? Does this part seem too Asian?'” recalls Tong. “This variation is so well known, and it is only one minute long. To be able to digest that and demonstrate the possibility of incorporating diverse voices to scrape away these ideas and the stereotypes that have been perpetuated within this variation is really just an illustration for other possibilities that are out there.”
Connecting with other artists of Asian descent has led to important conversations within and beyond Hubbard Street. As Tong was researching visions and revisions of Chinese Tea, she stumbled across arts administrator and activist Phil Chan’s 2020 book, Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing Between Intention and Impact. Detailing a humane approach to addressing yellowface representations of Asian people in the performing arts, Final Bow offers examples of the work Chan and his collaborator, New York City Ballet soloist Georgina Pazcoguin, have done since 2017, when then-artistic director Peter Martins asked for help revising the Chinese variation at NYCB. With one of the most well-known American ballet companies expressing a willingness to change, “I realized we could update the best practices for everybody everywhere,” says Chan. Since that time, dozens of artistic directors and arts leaders have signed a pledge committing to inclusion and elimination of stereotypes on Yellowface.org, and Chan and Pazcoguin have served as consultants on ballet, modern dance, musical theater, and opera productions for companies that include Ballet West, Pennsylvania Ballet, and others.
Now, at Tong’s invitation, Final Bow for Yellowface is partnering with a contemporary company for the first time for the presentation of the Unboxed series at HSDC. “Phil has been a torchbearer in many ways,” says Tong. “For us to come together in this way has helped me think about our project in a larger context.” The title for the series arose in a meeting with Tong, Chan, Pazcoguin, and HSDC artistic liaison Jonathan Alsberry. “We talked about being put in a box. Having the category of who you are, what you do, what affectations you have, what languages you speak, assumptions about who people expect you to be, and breaking free of those things. We’re not going to separate our Asianness from our being. It’s part of who we are. These definitions that are put upon us could or could not have merit. And Phil made the point that there are a good number of Chinese Tea variations where people are literally in a box when they’re brought out on stage, and they hop out of them! There’s also something really lovely about unboxing a package. So Unboxed: what’s revealed?”
The connection was also providential for Final Bow for Yellowface, which in the last year has not only addressed anti-Asian stereotypes in theater but also sought to amplify the voices of dancemakers of Asian descent. “[Unboxed] felt like a great extension of a conversation we had started having,” says Chan. “If we get rid of yellowface, where are the Asian voices actually contributing to the art form? We were already thinking about shifting gears to build a choreographic incubator.” Unboxed asks questions that build on the theme of greater representation: “Can we make other associations with this music? Can it not be something we cringe at? Can it be something to celebrate?”
Tong is also partnering with Chan and Pazcoguin to curate 10,000 Dreams, a festival presenting a choreographer of Asian descent every day in May to celebrate Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. “If we are going to artistic directors saying we’re demanding you change and do better, we want to be partners with you to help you get there,” says Chan. “We want you to succeed, so we’re going to be part of the solution: we’re going to suggest 31 Asian choreographers that you might be interested in.”
Presented free on Instagram at @finalbowforyellowface and online at Yellowface.org, the festival features a pan-Asian lineup of dancemakers working in a wide range of dance genres, including culturally Asian forms, modern dance, contemporary, ballet, street dance, postmodern dance, and film. A work by each choreographer will be online to stream for just one day (“If you missed someone’s day, you can’t look back,” says Chan. “It’s a commitment to show up.”). On the title, Chan notes that 10,000 is the largest number in many Asian cultures. “It’s like saying more than you could ever imagine,” he says. “So 10,000 Dreams. Here’s 31 dreams. It’ll take us a while to get to 10,000, so maybe we’ll do this next year, too. There are more than 31 people ready to do this work.”
On the work of Yellowface.org, Chan says, “It’s never been about changing makeup, costumes, or choreography for us. It’s been about that larger dynamic: are we going to perpetuate images of Asians that allow us to be treated without nuance, or are we going to do better?”
At HSDC, Tong looks forward to the dialogues Unboxed will open, as well as a virtual season that closes with a premiere by former HSDC dancers Robyn Mineko Williams and Connie Shiau. “A project that makes space for more diverse voices enriches our experiences as human beings. Unboxed reminds me how powerful a simple conversation can be if you make the space to have it. Even just one exchange has the potential to change our being in both big and indiscernible ways.” v