DRAPER (ABC 4 News) – For the first time since the Odyssey Dance Theatre received backlash for gestures made by their performers in a KSL segment last Wednesday, they met with members of the local Asian community to talk about what happened and how they could move forward.
The controversy stemmed from Odyssey Dance Theatre (ODT) performers making bobbing head and goofy facial expressions during a tease with KSL for their upcoming ‘ReduxNut-Cracker’ show, a recreation of the Nutcracker with a pop and hip-hop twist.
“We were asked to walk towards the camera and part of the act that went on in that teaser was live transitions and moves that we do throughout the dance,” said Amber Morain, ODT dance who appeared in the KSL segment. “We never meant to disrespect anybody. That is just the dancing that people saw for that 5 seconds and was part of our dance’s transitions. For us, we did not realize how bad it looked on camera.”
The backlash on social media led to a statement from Derrel Yeager, co-founder and artistic director of Odyssey Dance Theatre that started with “Odyssey Dance Theatre is very sorry for the reaction to their appearance on the KSL TV morning show Wednesday morning” and ended with “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.”
Michael Kwan, president of the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association said Yeager’s statement made the situation even worse.
“It was really unbelievable to me. I couldn’t imagine a less conciliatory tone. They apologized for everything except for what they did,” Kwan told ABC 4 News on Friday. “They apologized for the fact that people got offended, not that they did something offensive.”
On Monday, ODT invited members of the local Asian community to their studio in Draper to watch a run-through of their Chinese dance and have a constructive dialogue between both parties.
“What the majority of the people in our community was looking for was an apology, an apology that specifically was addressing that they had done something wrong on their end and an honest conversation on how to move forward from there,” said Ami Noshiravan, a member of the local Asian community. “We wanted to go over each apology, explain why they were problematic and have a back and forth conversation.”
The face-to-face meeting also allowed the local Asian community to clarify the issue at hand.
“Specifically, we wanted to say that we recognize that this is a time-honored and Christmas piece tradition. We didn’t want to remove any dance scenes. We didn’t want to take away any creative dance power this company had,” said Noshiravan. “Specifically, we wanted to look at the tease. We wanted the dancers and the dance company to recognize what in the tease was racist and outdated.”
During the meeting, Yeager explained the process behind the stage design, wardrobe selection, story line, and had dancers perform the actual Chinese scene in an effort to allow members of the local Asian community to give feedback.
“There were certainly different stereotypes that we saw inside of their dance performance. But the dance company themselves were very open to working with our traditional dance community, moving forward, in making positive changes,” said Noshiravan.
“There was a candid discussion on some anachronism inherent in their staging and costuming. They seemed to want to present a portrayal that is not culturally insensitive. But they will definitely need our help to get there,” said Kwan.
Members of the local Asian community as well as representatives from the Utah Cultural Alliance explained the historical context, discriminatory behaviors, and stereotypes that lied behind the backlash that stemmed from ODT’s segment with KSL.
Morain admitted that going into the meeting was difficult and emotional for her, but by the end, she knew it was a vulnerable conversation that needed to happen.
“A lot of things were made to light and made known to us and for me personally, knowing what I did and what I can do better in the future to make sure that those kinds of things don’t happen again,” said Morain. “I now understand why people were offended by that.”
Dancers showed curiosity and eagerness during the meeting, asking questions and guidance on how to be more culturally respectful in their craft.
“Talking about creativity and culture is a hard thing for any artist. It’s a touchy subject because for a lot of us, we stem from our own personal experiences in life. It’s hard to know when you’re stepping too far or when you’re not well-informed enough to create your own perspective or ideas on things,” said ODT dancer Diego Ballesteros.
ODT has a little more than three weeks before showtime, but they say it’s important for them to make things right.
“As a company, as a whole community, we are wanting to honor the Asian culture and community and we want to make sure that we are continuously being informed,” said Ballesteros. “I never want people to feel that we are portraying them negatively in our performances. We want to honor and celebrate anyone and everyone that we’re pulling and involving in our shows. We want our art and craft to be current and reflect what’s happening in our society today.”
Members of the local Asian community said they left the meeting feeling optimistic of what’s to come next.
“I think that we have a great start and open line of communication. From here, I think we’re going to see over the next year, what comes from it and where we go from there,” said Noshiravan.
“I hope that by us stepping forward and taking this opportunity to have open conversations with the community to help us understand what we did wrong, we can do better in the future. We’d like to continue to have this conversation of openness and vulnerability so that situations like this won’t happen again,” said Morain.
Kwan said the local Asian community will continue to work with ODT to help them make their production current and reflective of today’s social and cultural climate for communities of color.
“We should remember that people make mistakes, especially young people. It is rarely productive, and can be counter-productive, to seek to extract a pound of flesh. We have a wonderful opportunity to take a teaching moment and develop it into a long term relationship to ensure that future productions are free from derogatory, harmful or false depictions of, not only our community, but all communities,” said Kwan.