SALT LAKE CITY — Odyssey Dance Theatre will kick off the sixth year of its annual holiday show “Redux Nut-Cracker” at Kingsbury Hall Wednesday night, but unlike years past, this year’s show experienced an unexpected controversy.
A few weeks ago, Odyssey Dance Theatre appeared on a local television show where a selection of dancers, after performing part of the Chinese dance from ODT's show, struck series of stereotypical Chinese poses, prompting a social media backlash and, eventually, a chance for the dance company to come together with local Asian American leaders.
“We weren’t trying to be offensive, but it came off very offensive,” Derryl Yeager, Odyssey Dance Theatre founder and artistic director, told the Deseret News.
The piece aired on KSL's morning news show, and KSL responded to the backlash on social media, stating that they "certainly did not intend to offend and sincerely regret any hurt this segment caused."
The controversy, which quickly spread across social media, became an opportunity for Odyssey Dance to meet with various representatives from the Asian-American community, inviting them to visit Odyssey’s rehearsal to watch the dance and give imput where they saw need.
One of the groups who responded to the segment and who Odyssey Dance invited to its rehearsal was the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association. For them, offering insights on the dance was an opportunity to give greater depth and clarity to how the dance represents Chinese men and women.
“Regardless of their intent, reinforcing these stereotypes dehumanizes people and reduces them to exaggerated caricatures instead of three-dimensional people," they wrote in a statement on their website. "Our shared history is replete of examples of very real harm when we don't see each other as people and single out a group for ridicule and shame. We hope that with creativity, we can find a way to enhance this performance, not censor it.”
According to Yeager, the rehearsal allowed the Asian-American representatives to view the dance and instruct the dancers on Chinese customs and clothing, which the company opted to change after the meeting, and give Odyssey Dance the opportunity to explain their intentions.
“We were able to present our side of the story … (that) we weren’t trying to be offensive or racial, it was just something that happened," Yeager said. "I think if anything, we’re guilty of being less informed and being less cognizant of what is offensive.”
In addition to the changes Odyssey Dance made to the Chinese dance, they have also included the following statement in their performance program from Michael Kwan, president of the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association.
“We are pleased that ODT’s company and management has made a sincere apology and sought our input to avoid further unfortunate missteps. As a result of our input, portions of the program have been reworked. Keep in mind that the sequence you will see represents a fantasy world and is not an attempt to portray our Asian-American community. While this, and every ODT performance, is a work in progress, we are pleased that our collaboration has led to a better understanding and a new relationship between the company and our community."
The Chinese dance — known in "The Nutcracker" world as the Chinese Tea segment — has been a part of various forms of "The Nutcracker" since the ballet's first performance in 1892, but recently, many dance companies, including Ballet West, have made changes to their dances to make them more culturally sensitive, the New York Times recently reported. The recent changes that Odyssey Dance Theatre has made include a Chinese dragon that the company purchased from China and a set of Chinese fans.
"We have a brand new Chinese dance that we don’t feel is offensive in any way shape or form and celebrates their culture," Yeager said. "The feedback we have (received from the Asian-American community) at this point has been very positive."
Odyssey's "Nutcracker" performance is unique in that it strays from the traditional storyline of “The Nutcracker,” taking instead a more modern angle — like Clara receiving an iPhone for Christmas instead of a nutcracker. Additionally, audience members won't see dancing buffoons but rather a host of Nintendo's Marios and Luigis, while Barbie and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle appear onstage instead of the traditional dancing doll and bear. The performance, colored with remixes of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's original score, is imbued with a meaningful lesson about how technology shouldn’t take precedence over family.
It's been a season of lessons for Yeager but he plans on doing his best to ensure that he's learned some of the most difficult.
“(We’ve learned that) if we are doing anything that’s representing a culture, we have to be careful how we present it and be more thoughtful in those situations," he said. "… We’re trying to let people know we’re not what they said we were and … (we want to) come away with a big positive.”
If you go ...
What: Odyssey Dance Theatre's "Redux Nut-Cracker"
When: Dec. 12-22, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Kingsbury Hall, 1395 Presidents Circle
How much: $25-$40