Artistic Director’s Notebook: George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker 2020

When the days grow short and the nights cold and festive holiday lights appear all around us, we spot snow on faraway peaks and wonder whether we might see enough outside our windows to build a snowperson. We also realize with some delight, it’s Nutcracker time.

But it’s 2020 and we can’t go to The Nutcracker! That’s true. We do need you to stay home and we want you to be safe, but you’re also going to need some entertainment. Have no fear, Pacific Northwest Ballet is proud to bring The Nutcracker to you—right in your home—complete with magic sleigh, towering tree, twelve tiny angels, a Sugar Plum Fairy, and enough snow to build a snowperson. That’s right, make room on the couch for Mother Ginger and her eight tiny polichinelles and you might want to get some cheese for those mice. Thanks for joining us—this will be fun.

Each year I love to write about the tradition of The Nutcracker. I hope Nutcracker is your tradition as well. It brings great joy and opens a door to the endlessly fascinating world of ballet. Though 2020 has been a challenging year, the year has also brought about an opportunity to look at aspects of our practices and traditions through a lens of equity.

Traditional classical ballet, though much revered, has problematic aspects that need to be considered, called out and discussed. I know some readers of these notes have just recently learned to read, but these issues should be on the minds of Nutcracker fans of all ages. In truth the younger set sometimes discusses issues of equity with greater ease and understanding than those of us who have lived within these traditions for many decades.

The depiction of Chinese characters has been a focus of ours at PNB and we have been working closely with activists Phil Chan and Gina Pazcoguin who founded the organization called Final Bow for Yellowface. I urge all of you to check out their website and to get a copy of Phil’s recent book: Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing between Intention and Impact. We’ve also been working collaboratively with the George Balanchine Trust and designer Ian Falconer in order to ensure the presentation and performance of these characters does not stereotype Chinese people or degrade Chinese culture.

Our equity work at PNB is widespread, evolving, and ever present. If you’d like to learn more, we encourage you to visit We welcome your feedback and understand we gain a more complete perspective by hearing from you.

To date I have asked choreographers or trusts to allow minor changes of choreography in four ballets in order to avoid racial stereotyping. The conversations haven’t always been easy, but they are important. Ultimately in every case choreographers and trusts agreed changes were warranted. In the case of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, the Balanchine Trust recognized the choreographer himself would likely have implemented changes himself not wanting to offend or show disrespect to anyone. Before we premiered Balanchine’s production we removed stereotypical pointed fingers used in the original 1957 production. We also made adjustments to original costume designs. The Trust endorsed these alterations and asked us to share changes with other companies including Balanchine’s own, New York City Ballet.

We recognize the improvements PNB has made are just a start. There is more work to be done. Expect further revisions to the Chinese divertissement when we all (yes, you) return to the McCaw Hall next year, and please join us in a discussion about racial stereotyping in classical ballet. We will continue to review the classical ballet canon and ensure what we present aligns with our values and those of our community. Ballet can and should be wonderfully inclusive. When someone feels excluded or offended we have failed in our objective. The Nutcracker should be an example of the broad inclusivity. The shared joy we experience in the presence of exquisite ballet and enchanting story is unparalleled.

Thank you for joining us on our journey. It’s curtain time. Clara’s asleep in her chair with Fritz dozing beside her and guess what? It’s snowing outside.

Peter Boal
Artistic Director

Photos: Clara and Fritz waiting for the Stahlbaum’s party to begin; Peter Boal and Ian Falconer make it snow on Clara and the prince. ©Angela Sterling.