The Nutcracker: offensive to Asians and not in tune with modern racial sensibilities

Tchaikovsky's ballet - performed last week at the Cervantes in Malaga - is being revised nowadays because it apparently features a number of cultural clichés and blackfacing


The tradition of watching Pyotr Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker at Christmas time has existed in Malaga for decades. Towards the end of December, people flock to the Cervantes Theatre to enjoy a colourful, sparkling fairy-tale, such as Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and, of course, The Nutcracker.

Since The Nutcracker's premiere on 18 December 1892 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, E.T.A. Hoffmann's masterpiece has captivated young and old. The great adventure in the ballet begins as soon as little Marie receives a pretty nutcracker as a present. In a dream, the girl joins the master of the Nutcracker and goes into battle against the Mouse King together with his soldiers...

This year, The Nutcracker is also about a battle, or rather a collision. Debates around the ballet have arisen after the controversial Bild-newspaper interview with the acting artistic director of the Berlin State Ballet, Christiane Theobald. Berlin's principal ballet company was preparing The Nutcracker for this season, spending 1.5 million euros on production and inviting the famous Russian choreographers, Vasily Medvedev and Yuri Burlaka. However the show was finally cancelled due to a lack of political correctness.

Christiane Theobald noted that the production is a reconstruction of an original from 1892, but despite this, today it raises a number of questions and needs to be revised. Many moments that were perceived as exotic at the time of its original production might be really offensive today.

Traditionally accepted elements like the bamboo hats and pointed finger movements have already been removed from the ballet in many theatres throughout the world. However, Christiane Theobald has found more controversy - racist elements caused by two children using makeup imitating dark skin, hence blackfacing.

Additionally, in the oriental dance with the harem concubines, the soloist's body is also covered with dark make-up. It is also stressed that the above-mentioned oriental dance contains stereotypical small clumsy steps, and thereby this episode in the ballet might offend Asiatic nations.

Christiane Theobald told Bild that in a post-colonial era, questions may arise and need further clarification.

“With the current discussion about which repertoire is still justifiable in post-colonial times, we have to ask ourselves whether elements from the time of origin are difficult. I am convinced that we have to re-contextualise this 'Nutcracker', we should re-read this repertoire.”

In consequence, The Berlin State Ballet replaced The Nutcracker with Don Quixote - apparently, a more innocent ballet, albeit with its own big question marks as well. The character of Sancho Panza is indeed a servant and this aspect might be also discriminating regarding total equality and freedom. Additionally, animal abuse apparently takes place in the ballet. Do you think a small donkey feels comfortable carrying very corpulent Sancho? Moreover, calling Don Quixote an old romantic... sounds like ageism, or...?

In either event, The Nutcracker was staged in Malaga on 30 December. The Russian National Ballet under Sergei Radchenko offered an opportunity to enjoy the enchantment of ballet in one of the most delightful ways.

Regarding the current debates, the performance was set to be 'provocative', i.e. a classical version with the original choreography of Frenchman Marius Petipa.

Actually, we live in the dynamic time where we are constantly re-evaluating almost everything. For example, the above mentioned blackfacing was condemned in Britain decades ago in the context of the Black and White Minstrel Show. After 20 years of running on BBC, the show was finally cancelled because, despite audience rating at the time, it was considered an embarrassment.

From looking back let's now look to the present day.. to this week's Three Kings parades when blackfacing applies to Spain.

Every January, somebody playing the role of Balthazar, paints their face black. In 2018, Malaga 'stopped' blackfacing when an African refugee from Côte d'Ivoire, was chosen for the role of Balthazar. However, the tradition of face-painting has been continued since then.

It proves everything is so relative even within Europe's borders. As for The Nutcracker, the ballet speaks of the longing for lost innocence and the clash between the reality of adults and the world of childhood dreams, though we see in reality everything is simply about a clash between adults - so different, complicated, convinced and, at the same time, confusing.