New Yorkers have historically flocked to the ballet to watch holiday-themed shows such as the Nutcracker this time of year. The original production was first staged in the United States in 1944, at a time when being politically correct was not in the American consciousness. The Nutcracker, however, is filled with racial stereotypes, specifically ‘Yellowface.’ Yellowface is similar to Blackface. It is the practice of wearing exaggerated makeup in performances to imitate the appearance of a person of East Asian descent.
In her new documentary, Beyond Yellowface, director/producer Jennifer Lin follows Phil Chan and Georgina Pazcoguin, two New York City dancers of Asian descent and co-founders of the Final Bow for Yellowface movement. Chan and Pazcoguin have challenged leading ballet companies to stop using harmful Asian stereotypes.
“There are some ballet companies that still perform some ballets in Yellowface and Blackface,” says Lin. “What [Chan and Pazcoguin] have been doing over the past five years is saying, ‘We can do better,’ I love ballet and want it to grow as an art form. But for it really to expand to the next century, it needs to deal with some of these issues.”
The Final Bow for Yellowface movement, which will be portrayed throughout the documentary, began with a phone call around six years ago. A New York City Ballet artistic director called Chan to discuss the second act of George Balanchine’s the Nutcracker. Some audience members were uncomfortable with how different nationalities were represented on stage, and the artistic director didn’t know what to do.
“We looked at the history of how Asians have historically been represented on stage, the context around how the ballet was made, and how different cultures were represented,” says Chan. “The [artistic director] made subtle changes to the makeup, choreography and customizing of the Nutcracker.”
That’s when Chan called up Pazcoguin — she was the first Asian American female soloist at the New York City Ballet — they both realized they had the opportunity to start a larger conversation about how to represent non-Europeans on stage. The Final Bow for Yellowface had been set in motion, and the two came up with a pledge that committed signers to diversity, equity and inclusion on the ballet stage — most importantly, no Yellowface. Every major ballet company has signed the pledge: the National Ballet of Canada, the Royal Ballet in London, the Australian Ballet, the Scottish Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet.
“We really need to make sure that we have these more nuanced portrayals of nonwhite people in our stages so that the art form can continue into the 21st century for a diverse audience,” says Chan. “That’s just the reality of who we are now. We need to make sure our art reflects that, or else it becomes obsolete, irrelevant and frankly, boring.”
Chan and Pazcoguin don’t want the movement to be associated with ‘cancel culture,’ rather than cancel out and stop running shows like the Nutcracker — which represents up to 60% of a company’s annual income — they are asking themselves, “How can we make this better?”
“What we are trying to say is ‘Is there another way to do the Nutcracker that is multiracial in its approach other than being strictly Eurocentric?’” says Chan. “It’s looking at cultures not as [white dancers] are at the center and exotic people are dancing around them, but saying, these are all the flavors that exist within who we are as people, as a society, as a community.”
The movement has inspired other art forms, such as opera and theater, to challenge Yellowface and harmful stereotypes. The documentary featuring Chan and Pazcoguin does not currently have a release date.