The Daily Telegraph

Royal Ballet changes ‘harem’ dance to make Nutcracker more on point

Two female performers removed from section so Christmas favourite remains ‘inclusive’


THE Royal Ballet has reimagined the Arabian Dance in its production of Tchaikovsk­y’s The Nutcracker amid concerns that the “harem” overtones were offensive. Where previously there were three female dancers and one male, the scene is now a pas de deux.

It follows Scottish Ballet’s announceme­nt 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it was updating the costumes and choreograp­hy in the Chinese and Arabian-inspired scenes to rid its production of “outdated and racial artistic content”.

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 Braendsrød – performed the Arabian Dance. The Royal Ballet 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 art form. 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 owing to Covid restrictio­ns, as the choreograp­hy required the dancers to be in close proximity. O’hare is among the signatorie­s to the 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, he wrote: “On behalf of the Royal Ballet I am delighted to be supporting this campaign to ensure dance and ballet continue to be a force for diversity, inclusion and equality.”

The Royal Ballet reworked the Chinese dance into an acrobatic circus act five years ago 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 facing the company, 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, its artistic director, explained earlier this month why The Nutcracker needed to be updated. Their production was created in 1972 “when it was acceptable to imitate cultures and represent them through imitation rather than deep knowledge,” he said. “It’s about representa­tion, knowing we have done our due diligence and that if we’re representi­ng a culture, then we’re doing it authentica­lly.”


The celebrated producer choreograp­her Peter Wright marks his 95th birthday today, making him five years older than The Royal Ballet itself. It has been said that he is producer first and a choreograp­her second, and there is something in this: his steps don’t have, say, the Schubertia­n lyricism of Frederick Ashton, the psychosexu­al abandon of Kenneth Macmillan, or the eye-popping originalit­y of either. But when it comes to retelling 19thcentur­y classics with a maximum of narrative clarity and visual élan, a minimum of fuss and a complete absence of auteurish ego, he is in a class of his own.

He is also constantly revising his work. True, it was Scottish Ballet’s culturally aware tweaks to their own Nutcracker – which opens in Edinburgh next week – that made the news recently. But some five years ago, at the age of 90, Wright told me that he had completely overhauled the Act II Chinese Dance in his 1984 Royal Ballet Nutcracker to remove the hugely dated, fingers-in-the-air-chinamen steps. And Tuesday evening at Covent Garden – the first night of the Royal Ballet’s revival – revealed that the Arabian Dance has now also been reworked by senior répétiteur and principal character artist Gary Avis, but fully overseen by Wright. Where it used to be three girls and a guy, it is now just one couple. In other words, the now-questionab­le cliché of a Middle Eastern harem has gone; and, especially with a duo radiating such simmering poise as Melissa Hamilton and Lukas B Braendsrød, it turns out you don’t miss it one bit.

These changes have subtly updated and enriched what has always been a luxurious production. Julia Trevelyan Oman’s Biedermeie­r-era designs create a giddy sense of night-before-christmas excitement, while Wright’s uniquely satisfying through-story means that the whole thing makes (fantastica­l) sense and ensures a constant sense of forward motion.

In recent years, Avis has made Drosselmey­er – the magician invited to the Stahlbaums’s house on December 24, and the principal motor of the plot – very much his own, and Tuesday’s intelligen­t, impassione­d, flamboyant performanc­e did nothing to dispel this notion. He drives the action on magnificen­tly, besides which no one on earth can swish a turquoise cape or hurl glitter in the air quite like him.

As for young Clara and her Nutcracker-made-flesh, Anna Rose O’sullivan and Joseph Sissens generate an unusual, very lovely ardour in the tender Act I pas de deux, while Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov are contrastin­g, unobtainab­le regality itself as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince. The Corps are excellent throughout, the solo work generally good, with a special mention for the delicious fun that Sae Maeda brought to the Dance of the Mirlitons – a young dancer to watch.

Under conductor Koen Kessels, the house orchestra delivered Tchaikovsk­y’s coruscatin­g score with a freshness and feeling that belied the fact that they’ve played it at Covent Garden exactly 500 times before. And, as a footnote, I have to add how heart-warming it is to see this production, which had its wings meanly clipped last December by distancing requiremen­ts, fully taking flight once again. With luck, the Stahlbaums’s newly teeming drawing room anticipate­s the Christmas we all have in store.

 ?? The Nutcracker ?? Centre stage: Anna Rose O’sullivan and Gary Avis make magic in
The Nutcracker Centre stage: Anna Rose O’sullivan and Gary Avis make magic in

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