SALT LAKE CITY (ABC 4 News) – A Utah dance company is under fire after the local Asian American community said their dancers made racist gestures during a segment with KSL Wednesday morning to promote their upcoming production.
Performers with Odyssey Dance Theatre were shown on KSL’s morning show making bobbing head and goofy facial expressions during a tease for their ‘ReduxNut-Cracker’ show, a recreation of the Nutcracker with a pop and hip-hop twist.
The gestures immediately sparked outrage with members in the local Asian American community.
“It’s offensive, because it perpetuates a false and hurtful stereotype of Asians, not just Chinese, but really all Asians,” said Michael Kwan, president of the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association. “I’ve been to China. I’ve grown up being Chinese, and I’ve never seen any Asian act that way and yet, and that’s how we seem to be portrayed.”
In a statement to ABC 4 News from Derrel Yeager, co-founder and artistic director for Odyssey Dance House, he said:
“In an effort to create an on camera experience for the KSL audience, Odyssey Dance Theatre’s dancers did a 5 second improvised tease on Wednesday morning with women in costume showcasing a Chinese number in their upcoming holiday production, ReduxNut-Cracker at Kingsbury Hall. This short segment is not part of the actual choreographed production, and we sincerely regret any hurt this segment caused and did not intend to offend.”
Kwan said the fact that the gestures were improvised is somewhat of a relief, knowing that it’s not part of the production’s choreography. But it brings to light something much more alarming.
“It makes it worse because it seems then that is how we are perceived by the individuals who made those gestures,” said Kwan.
Whether or not the gestures were intentional, Crystal Young-Otterstrom with the Utah Cultural Alliance said it’s not an excuse for the behavior.
“If you have to ask yourself if it’s cultural appropriation, then you probably shouldn’t do it. Over the many times that organizations in Utah have dealt with these issues, they always say that they didn’t intend to offend,” said Young-Otterstrom. “Hardly anybody intends to be racist, intends to appropriate, or intends to be rude. At our core, we’re all trying to be decent human beings, but that lack of intention is sometimes worse than being intentional. When we do something and we’re not even aware that it’s offensive, then we’re really perpetuating that the dominate culture is dominating an un-dominant culture.”
In Odyssey Dance Theatre’s public statement, the first line said, “Odyssey Dance Theatre is very sorry for the reaction to their appearance on the KSL TV morning show Wednesday morning.”
The last line said, “We are sorry that there were those that were offended. It certainly was not our intent. We hope that audiences will come to see the entire production and judge for themselves.”
This kind of language in the apology shows ODT is actually missing the whole point of the controversy, said Kwan.
“It was really unbelievable to me. I couldn’t imagine a less conciliatory tone. They apologized for everything except for what they did,” said Kwan. “They apologized for the fact that people got offended, not that they did something offensive.”
He said Yeager tried using history as justification in the statement, which actually serves as a painful reminder for the Chinese American community.
“It was really a non-apology apology. They tried to explain it in a way that this was performed since 1892, which is coincidentally the year that the Chinese Exclusion Act was reenacted, which simply excluded Chinese people from the country,” said Kwan. “It’s probably the most discriminatory law ever passed to this country and it passed during the Yellow Peril hysteria, which began with dehumanizing people and setting forth harmful and false stereotypes. The effects of that law are still being felt today.”
He also clarified that leaders in the local Asian American community are not calling for the removal of the entire Chinese dance in the production. But they want dialogue, discussion, and more inclusion when it comes to culturally-inspired pieces like this.
Young-Otterstrom said unfortunately, this type of controversy is not something new to the arts in Utah. But there are several production companies that have successfully executed cultural pieces in a respectful way.
“Our own Ballet West here in Utah has done wonderful work with their new production of the Nutcracker. They were even quoted in the New York Times recently on this very same topic,” said Young-Otterstrom. “Dance companies around the world, for decades, have been looking at ways of being more respectful with how we represent some of these pieces that we love.”
She recommends that whenever a production company pursues a cultural piece, that they “involve people closely connected to that community, express interest in hearing their opinions on the piece, costume, or choreography in question, ask them what might be appropriate ways to come about it” so that diverse voices are brought into the creation of the product.
Kwan said Utah Asian American community leaders have requested a face-to-face meeting with Odyssey Dance Theatre.
As of Friday night, Yeager said:
“We are in the process of confirming. We are interested and anxious to hear the knowledge of those involved on misinformed cultural stereotypes and to adapt our works to accommodate current sensibilities.”