Cancel Culture: The Nutcracker Metamorphoses in Europe

Cancel Culture: The Nutcracker Metamorphoses in Europe

How modernity is changing a fairy tale. In 2021, the classical ballet production to the music by Tchaikovsky was either canceled or modified in European capitals. 

Berlin cancellation: windmills - instead of a Christmas tree

People living in the German capital have been left without the traditional Christmas Nutcracker this year. The ballet to the world-famous music by Tchaikovsky, which has been on the Berlin State Ballet stage since 2013, is canceled due to “political incorrectness”. The Chinese and Arabian dances in the production served as a reason for this decision.  

Acting Artistic Director of the Berlin Ballet Christiane Theobald said in her statement:   

"The Chinese dance shows stereotypes with small baby steps. That was not critically questioned during the time when the choreography was created. But today we have to explain this. The Oriental dance with the harem women and a soloist with brown body make-up are also things that can no longer be put on stage without discussion today.”

This production for the Berlin theater stage was staged by choreographers Vasily Medvedev and Yuri Burlaka. It was supposed to be a reconstruction of the classical ballet by Marius Petipa. Now, instead of the Christmassy Nutcracker, Berliners will see the ballet Don Quixote  

The production based on the fairy tale by German romanticist Hoffmann will not disappear from the repertoire forever, reassures the Berlin Ballet management. However, Christiane Theobald doesn’t rule out a possibility that the episodes where the artists are made up to look like darker-skinned people, and the scene with the Arabian and Chinese dances will be revised later. By the way, choreographer Vasily Medvedev mentioned earlier that the dark makeup for the Arabian dance soloist in the production is also an aesthetic solution, because the dancer goes on stage almost naked.   

However, in the end, Theobald summed up her statement saying that the theater abandoned the Christmas Nutcracker “not because of controversial issues, but in favor of Don Quixote”. The Spanish production has a wider cast, and the theater management wanted to involve as many artists as possible.  

English editing: a duet - instead of group dance

The second Nutcracker case took place at Covent Garden. The ballet choreographed by Peter Wright was amended on the initiative of the theater administration. In November, the audience saw a pair dancing the Arabian dance instead of the usual three danseurs and one danseuse. The solution was explained as follows: in the historical version of this dance, modern viewers might see a hint of harem.  

The London theater explained that the classical ballet repertoire does not remain unchanged. The productions are regularly reviewed and monitored to ensure that they are “relevant and inclusive”. 

Scottish changes: political correctness - instead of national "caricatures"

The Scottish Ballet supported their neighbors' decision and issued an official press release. The theater administration says in it that, following ongoing consultancy on the production, they are ready to make changes to the structure of the ballet. The choreography of the Chinese and Arabian dances will be changed to "remove elements of caricature”. Costume designers will update costumes of the artists playing the Chinese characters on stage. Their long moustaches and pointed fingers will be gone, the dancers will also take off their conical hats. 

But, probably, the most noticeable change will affect the part of Marie’s godfather - Drosselmeyer. Now, the Scotland’s audience gets a chance to see both a man and a woman in this role, depending on the cast on the day of the performance. The Scottish Ballet Artistic Director Christopher Hampson said: "There was nothing in the role that made me think it only a man could deliver it.”  

Responses: how to evaluate works of the past under the lens of modern views?

Every year, December and January performances of The Nutcracker in different theaters of our country are always sold out. Both children and adults watch this eternal ballet fairy tale by Hoffmann with unfailing interest. That is why, the decisions of European theaters to cancel the performance surprised many. Artists, public figures, journalists and government officials shared their opinions on the Western precedents with The Nutcracker. 

For example, a member of the Federation Council Alexei Pushkov in his Telegram channel called of The Nutcracker cancellation in Berlin an “ideological inquisition”. The Senator believes that this fight against The Nutcracker won’t be the last one.  

And ballet critic Leyla Guchmazova recalled that a couple of years ago the topic of racial discrimination had already popped up in ballet but in relation to another production - La Bayadère and the danse de négrillons: 

“We transfer the today’s realities to the product of the late 19th century and wonder why it’s not okay. I think it's ridiculous.”

During its long stage life, The Nutcracker ballet became canonical and gained a strong associative connection with Christmas and New Year's atmosphere. For many generations of people all over the world, this performance is a holiday symbol, just like a gorgeous sparkling Christmas tree, under which Marie and her brave friend greet the morning of a new day. It is a pity that in our new world there is no place for the good old symbols, but the search for non-existent meanings in them is encouraged, albeit by the silence of the audience.