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New character takes racist imagery out of Pacific Northwest Ballet's 'The Nutcracker'

The character Cricket stands center stage during the Chinese Tea dance scene in "The Nutcracker." On either side of him are two female dancers dressed in matching Chinese-inspired outfits. All three are in the same position with both of their hands in the air.
Angela Sterling
Pacific Northwest Ballet
Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Christian Poppe as the Green Tea Cricket, center, with PNB School students Celena Fornell and Emerson Boll and company dancers in a scene from George Balanchine’s "The Nutcracker."

This year marks the debut of a new character in Pacific Northwest Ballet's "The Nutcracker." After a discussion about the racist imagery in a particular scene of the ballet, the company decided to address it by creating the Green Tea Cricket.

When Pacific Northwest Ballet retired its production of the Maurice Sendak version of "The Nutcracker" six years ago, they replaced it with the George Balanchine version from the 1950s. This reignited a conversation about the use of yellowface and the portrayal of Chinese people in the Tea dance scene.

In Act II, Clara and The Nutcracker are entertained by delicacies from around the world. There are dancing candy canes from Russia, chocolates from Spain and tea from China. Peter Boal, PNB’s artistic director, describes the Chinese Tea scene: "Two women bring out a box and then they open up the box, and a male dancer comes out and does some pretty spectacular athletic leaps and then jumps back in the box and off stage they go."

In the Balanchine version, the male dancer wears yellowface, often sports a Fu Manchu-style beard and a rice paddy hat. Boal cut these elements when the Balanchine version was first performed at PNB. But then he wanted to do more.

Back in 2019, Boal turned to his friend Phil Chan for advice. Chan is the founder of an organization called Final Bow for Yellowface.

"He’s written about it, lectured about it and approached a lot of classical ballet companies about making changes in their traditional rep and, in particular, 'The Nutcracker,' " Boal said.

The idea Boal came up with was to replace the man in the dance with a character, the Green Tea Cricket. Chan approved of the idea, which is a nod to Chinese culture in which crickets are considered lucky. Christian Poppe, who is half-Chinese, is one of the first to dance the role of the Green Tea Cricket. For him, it’s a welcome change.

"Caricature to me means something that's maybe a little bit overexaggerated and misrepresentative," Poppe said. "The cricket to me is more of a character than a caricature, and I think that’s an important distinction to make."

Boal estimates that nearly 40% of PNB’s school identify as Asian. He says it’s important to look back and ask why tradition has to be tradition if it’s hurting someone or a group of people.

"Live theater is so of the moment and, you know, it's not sort of like the painting is done. You paint the painting every night," Boal said. "I think that's the beauty of the art form, is that it can change, it can grow, it can evolve and sometimes it needs to."

"The Nutcracker" runs through Dec. 28 at McCaw Hall in Seattle. PNB is requiring all patrons 12 years and older to provide either proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test administered within the last 72 hours.

Grace Madigan covers arts and culture with a focus on how people express themselves and connect to their communities through art, music, media, food, and sport.