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The above link is a Youtube clip from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. Most ballets are performed by a company of trained dancers. The performances are intricately choreographed to telegraph the emotions and feelings of the characters and to relay the plot of the story without using an dialogue. In this scene, the heroine Clara and the young prince watch a variety of performers, including a pair of dancers who are supposed to be Chinese. In the context of the ballet, this scene is supposed to be one of a series of wonders that the prince shows Clara because at the time of the writing of the ballet, few people would have had direct interaction with Chinese people. They appear in modified versions of traditional Chinese garb and appear to have exaggerated versions of Chinese peasant hats upon their heads. Although the performance is a ballet and the dance is performed in the traditional steps of such a piece, there is also an undercurrent of stereotyping in the choreography. For example, much of the time the dancers have their arms crossed which is often seen in films and plays with stereotypical Chinese people as a gesture that is common to the people. Also, the accessories that the dancers have like the fans in the woman's hands and the long ponytail of the male dancer underscore that these are not real Chinese people, but prejudicial depictions based upon what the western world knew of that Asian country. The customs of an entire culture are distilled down into a stereotypical showcase of preconceived notions.
This clip describes me and my quest for identity. I am Asian. Specifically, I am Chinese and am currently living in the United States. My identity is comprised of cultural influences of both China and the U.S. The dance from The Nutcracker shows how some of the western world view the Asian people and it is offensive in a way and understandable in another way. Not all Chinese people wear the traditional garb that is displayed in the ballet. Also, not all Chinese men wear long hair and very few Chinese women carry around fans, if any do at all. On the other hand, the Chinese dance from The Nutcracker is a celebration, an example of the Broadway theme of optimism, abundance, and even exuberance. The characters are happy and dancing to entertain Clara. To her, they are amazing people because she has never had the opportunity to meet Chinese people before. When comparing this dance to some of the other dances which are characteristic of the American culture, it is easy to see that ballets and dances like this one would be a direct precursor to the lavish Broadway musicals that would appear in the years after the ballet was written. Just as the Chinese dance is extravagant, colorful, and has some amazing dance moves from the performs, so too later performances would have to reach this level of aesthetic appeal if they hoped to have any success.
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