Ballet companies around the world are in the thick of Nutcracker season right now, and many are grappling with some surprisingly meaty issues at the heart of this light, sugary ballet: representation and cultural appropriation.

Waltz of the Snowflakes, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens' Nutcracker
© Veronyc Vachon

I’m talking of course about the “Chinese Tea” dance, and to a lesser extent, the Arabian-inspired “Coffee” section. In most traditional productions of The Nutcracker, “Tea” has been a thinly-disguised yellowface performance complete with pointy chopstick fingers, exaggerated bows, flat-footed running and Fu Manchu mustaches. Over the last five years, discussions have been ramping up online about the choreography, costumes, makeup and title of this section, and ballet companies are having to respond.

This year, happily, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens offered a nicely-done refresh of the “Tea” dance, both of the choreography and the title. As recently as last year, this dance was known as “The Chinese,” but is now denoted in the programme more simply and elegantly as “Tea.” The costumes remain the same, but the finger-wagging, shuffle-running of yesteryear is gone in favour of a more classical port de bras. It’s a small change that offers a huge improvement - the work looks fresh, peppy and well-rehearsed. Along with a great orchestral dialogue between the high woodwinds and pizzicato strings, the new-and-improved “Tea” truly is one of the highlights of the show. Casting mostly Asian dancers (the performance I saw featured the sparkling Émily He accompanied by Ryo Shimizu and Andre Santos) certainly helped the optics too.

The rest of the show followed closely the blueprint of Les Grands Ballets’ previous productions of The Nutcracker, or as it's known here, Casse Noisette.

In the first act, Etienne Lauzon and Chléa Giguere charmed as Fritz and Clara, Jérémy Galdeano was commanding as Doctor Drosselmeyer and James Little injected some wit and mischief into his Rat King depiction.

In the second act, we’re presented with a series of divertissements that take us through the Nutcracker’s spun-sugar universe; Andrew Giday offered some solid comedic moments in the bouffon role of The King of Candyland, Mai Kono was quietly regal as The Sugarplum Fairy with her neatly-packaged chaînés and strong pointework.

Maude Sabourin, Alessio Scognamiglio and Hamilton Nieh were wonderful in the Spanish-flavoured section, “Chocolate.” In addition to her spicy épaulement, Maude Sabourin has feet to die for, and she used them to best effect. Celestin Boutin brought cheers from the audience for his Trepak dance, which is based on a traditional Ukranian folk dance.

Nicholas Jones was a tall and stately Marzipan Shepherd, but his elevation felt a little flat. Special mention should go to young Rafaela Leon Alvarez, who really brought energy and personality to the role of the Black Sheep.

As for the orchestra, conductor Dina Gilbert steered them through the melodic score with sensitivity and wit - slowing down the tempo during the end of the Waltz of the Flowers to give it a little more gravitas, zipping through the Trepak section to give it even more buoyancy.

All in all, Les Grands Ballets delivers with their Casse Noisette. To be honest, there were a few parts that were rough around the edges, but I came out smiling all the same.