Royal Ballet reimagines Nutcracker’s ‘harem scene’ amid fears it is out of step with modern audiences

The Royal Ballet has re-imagined the Arabian Dance in its production of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, amid concerns that the scene’s “harem” overtones were offensive.

Where previously there were three female dancers and one male, the scene is now a duet.

The move follows Scottish Ballet’s announcement earlier this month that it was updating the costumes and choreography in the Chinese and Arabian-inspired scenes, to rid its production of “outdated and racial artistic content”.

The director of the Royal Ballet said: 'The most important thing is diversity, race and gender'

Credit: Vibrant Pictures/Alamy Stock Photo

Sir Peter Wright’s Royal Ballet production, which had its premiere in 1984, is a much-loved tradition at Covent Garden. This year’s show has been reworked by Gary Avis, senior ballet master and principal character artist, under the aegis of Sir Peter.

At Tuesday’s first night, only two dancers – Melissa Hamilton and Lukas B Brændsrød – performed the Arabian Dance.

 ‘Outdated and racial artistic content’

A Royal Ballet spokesman said: “The Royal Ballet regularly looks at the classic repertory to ensure these works remain fresh and as inclusive as possible to a broad audience.

“The Nutcracker is one of the most well-known ballets and is the perfect introduction for new audiences into this artform.

“Kevin O’Hare, director of The Royal Ballet, is keen to ensure that the production elements are appropriate within the context of classical ballet. In an ongoing process of discussion with company members and visiting guests, The Royal Ballet strives each season to make an inclusive environment for its performers and audiences.”

Last year, the Chinese and Arabian dances were cut from the production altogether. At the time, The Royal Ballet said this was due to Covid restrictions, as the choreography required the dancers to be in very close proximity to one another.

Last year, the Chinese and Arabian dances were cut from the production altogether due to Covid restrictions

Credit: Leo Mason/Popperfoto/Corbis via Getty Images

Mr O’Hare is among the signatories to a US-led “Final Bow for Yellowface” campaign, which calls for an end to the “19th century” depiction of Asians as a “bobbing and shuffling coolie from a bygone era”.

Backing the pledge, Mr O’Hare wrote: “On behalf of The Royal Ballet I am delighted to be supporting this campaign to ensure that dance and ballet continue to be a force for diversity, inclusion and equality, with everyone represented respectfully on our stages.”

‘An inclusive environment for performers and audiences’

Five years ago, The Royal Ballet reworked the Chinese dance into an acrobatic circus act after a colleague of the director said he had been embarrassed to watch the previous year’s effort with his Asian sister-in-law.

Asked in a recent interview to name the biggest issue currently facing the company, Mr O’Hare said: “The most important thing is diversity, race and gender – and we very much don’t want to shy away from it.

“We are so lucky to have some fantastic, diverse dancers in the company but do we always make them as comfortable as they should be? It’s been really tough – it’s important things we are talking about, how people feel.”

At Scottish Ballet, Christopher Hampson, the company’s artistic director, explained earlier this month why The Nutcracker needed to be updated.

Its production was created in 1972 “when it was acceptable to imitate cultures and represent them through imitation rather than deep knowledge".

He added: "It’s really about representation, knowing we have done our due diligence and that if we’re representing a culture, then we’re doing it authentically."

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