“Final Bow for Yellowface” is an online pledge created in 2017 by Phil Chan.
“It was in response to greater and greater volume of letters from audience members every year, responding to the Chinese Tea Dance in the Nutcracker,” Chan said.
Chan is an arts administrator and arts educator based in New York City. He said that in the Chinese Tea Dance, the costumes, makeup and choreography all depicted a stereotype and not a real representation of Asian people and culture. Chan said if Peter Martin, leader of the New York City Ballet, could make these changes last year, then so could the rest of the country.
The Grand Rapids Ballet is one of 45 dance and art companies that have signed the online pledge. James Sofranko is the Artistic Director.
“So we have a version that’s just about five years old, choreographed by Val Caniporoli, sets by Eugene Lee and Chris Van Allsburg, so it’s a very specific production to Grand Rapids and Grand Rapids Ballet,” Sofranko said.
Sofranko said the ballet hasn’t gotten any complaints from their performance. Still, he wanted to make sure their performance didn’t perpetuate any stereotypes. Sofranko sent Chan pictures of makeup and costumes and videos of choreography. He said there weren’t any glaring stereotypes in their performance, but they talked about how to make the characters stronger. One way to do that is to include a Chinese warrior character, created in a newer, 2005 version.
“But the version before that, the Christianson version, did pretty much have those stereotypical movements with pointy fingers and shuffling feet that are not what we want to present anymore," Sofranko said. "That was from a different time and we don’t need to show that even as a historical reference.”
As an Asian ballet dancer, Chan has felt the personal effects of these stereotypes that still exist within the art form.
“It’s a little bit hard to understand if you don’t have a grasp of history, if you haven’t been a victim of microaggressions on a constant level or racism,” Chan said.
Chan said he is happy that most responses from the dance community to his pledge have been positive and receptive. To learn more, visit yellowface.org.