How do you make the ballet more diverse? Transport the Nutcracker to Brooklyn

How do you make the ballet more diverse? Transport the Nutcracker to Brooklyn
Photo by Stephan Moskovic.

About halfway through the Brooklyn Ballet’s new performance of the Nutcracker at the Brooklyn Museum, three dudes walk on stage looking like they got lost on the way to the subway. They’re wearing fashionable clothes and hoodies instead of tutus and tights, and when the traditional music kicks in, they break into dance moves that are more showtime than pointe shoes.

If other Nutcracker performances are all about the prim, polish and traditionalism of a 120-year old ballet, this one is about cracking open that hard nut (see what I did there) and bringing the show to new audiences. Since this is Brooklyn, that means a diverse cast, a mix of dance styles from around the world, light-up outfits built with the help of a local hacker space and transforming the character Drosselmeyer into a master of the pop-and-lock. This is the first time the Brooklyn Ballet has done a full Nutcracker performance, so artistic director Lynn Parkerson was keen to make the show feel at home on Eastern Parkway.

“Why would I do the traditional Nutcracker? New York City Ballet has that locked up,” she told Brokelyn. “If I’m going to do a Nutcracker, it should reflect the place that we are in. … Already there’s these different characters from different countries. Brooklyn is this incredibly diverse borough, so it just lends itself to that.”

The production is tied to the overall recent emphasis on diversity in the performing arts, from Misty Copeland and Hamilton down to public school programs. And yeah, ballet isn’t cheap, but this one is still relatively affordable: New York City Ballet productions can run you hundreds of dollars. This show’s $90 tickets sold out through Sunday night. But Parkerson’s approach to the show, which emphasizes diversity and accessibility to new audiences who don’t frequent Lincoln Center, could be a big move toward keeping ballet relevant for future generations.


Bestie date night! 💃 #thebrooklynnutcracker #brooklynmuseum

A photo posted by Celeste Holt-Walters (@celestepix) on

The show transplants the ballet from the stuffy setting of 1800s Europe to modern day Brooklyn: The second act uses backdrops like subway turnstiles and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to relocate the action. It still has lots of elements of the traditional ballet, including the kind of dramatic moves that make the room gasp at the whiff of danger. But the overall hope is to open up the ballet to new audiences.

“There’s a lot of conversation about art forms that are lofty and perhaps caked in big theater environments,” Parkerson said. “It’s been around a long time now, it continues to fascinate people. They fall in love with it if they see it. We go into public schools with our ballet program. We find there’s a real hunger for it. There’s such a skill level involved, there’s an athleticism.”

The show is happening as the conversation about diversity in the arts is reaching a peak, in everything from Hamilton and their plea for tolerance directed at the vice president elect to the debate over #OscarsSoWhite (and #BroadwaySoWhite too). The Brooklyn Ballet was founded in 2002 with a goal of creating a diverse company; it runs programs at local schools to foster new talent. 

“I think [diversity] has been foisted upon the ballet world. It’s such a glaring absence or lack of awareness,” Parkerson said. “I would say Brooklyn Ballet has been on the forefront of that conversation. We’re not a big huge company but it’s been at the core of our mission for 15 years.”


The company, which uses about 50 adult and child dancers in the show, is made up of about 60 percent people of color, Parkerson said.

The show itself fuses multiculturalism in dance too: one scene features a jaw-dropping performance by Nakotah LaRance, a world-champion hoop dancer (if you’ve never seen hoop dancing, do yourself a favor and watch it in action here); Instead of the Arabian dancer that usually appears in the Nutcracker, the show uses a belly dancer.

The music is the traditional ballet score — for now. Parkerson said the ballet may look to do some hip hop arrangements of the Tchaikovsky score in the future. (Sadly, another ode to Brooklyn was left out of the show: there were no nutcracker drinks served in the lobby).

The Nutcracker the biggest show of the year for the ballet: Tickets to most of its regular shows throughout the year sell for $25. But even though it’s filling thousands of seats at the Brooklyn Museum over several performances, it tried to keep the costs low: an initial batch of tickets were available for $25 too.

“We’re still the discount brand nutcracker,” she said.

You can help support the ballet’s Kickstarter campaign here. Keep up with future Brooklyn Ballet performances here.

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