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Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Nutcracker in China: Not Yet Home

Earlier this year I attended the National Ballet of China's production of The Nutcracker at the National Theater in Beijing, timed to coincide with the Lunar New Year. As Nutcracker season is once again in full swing, I'd like to share a review I wrote after seeing this Chinese attempt to appropriate one of the most enduring European classical ballets.  I hope you find this cultural exploration thought-provoking!  (Photos below are courtesy of Xinhua.)

In China, popular ballets have been based on themes close to home, such as the military-themed The Red Detachment of Women, featuring uniform-clad, gun-toting women in pointe shoes, or on national literary treasures and legends, as in Raise the Red Lantern and The White Haired Girl. It was, therefore, a leap of faith for The National Ballet of China to stage a locally flavored version of that most cherished western holiday classic: The Nutcracker.

Traditional, Western ballets are respected in China but garner comparatively little enthusiasm; traditional Chinese performing arts tend to stress overt acrobatic flourishes, which are amply supplied by traditional and folk dance ensembles.  

This is not to say that there are not balletomanes in China;  the presence of several fine companies in the country suggests otherwise. But for the average theatre-goer, it would take something extra to bring ballet closer to home. It’s quite fitting that Feng Ying, artistic director of The National Ballet of China, chose the ballet that arguably exposes more new audiences to the art form in the west to attempt to make history in China.

This is the second iteration of the production that premiered in 2001. Perhaps it was in a nod to the ballet's origins that the premiere was held in December, despite the fact that most Chinese do not celebrate Christmas. It returned in late February this year to coincide with the end of the Lunar New Year festivities.

In this Chinese adaptation the setting is the Lunar New Year, and Yuan Yuan and her brother celebrate with friends in their hutong, traditional neighborhoods formed by courtyard residences that are fast disappearing from modern Beijing. The music that traditionally announces the presence of Drosselmeyer, the eccentric toymaker, heralds a European antiquities dealer as the guest of Yuan Yuan's family.  

What ensues is a scene that any local could identify with: toasts raised with tea cups at the dinner table. While this is a fitting mirror to the activities that occur in the European Stahlbaum family during Christmas, it was unfortunate that the choreography did not make interplay with the beautiful score.  Granted, the first act tends to consist mostly of pantomime in any version, but Tchaikovsky provides coy hesitations and lush climaxes that beg for movement; most of these were not realized by the choreography.

The Nutcracker, bestowed upon Yuan Yuan by the European visitor, comes to life and joins forces with tigers to defeat the Nian, a Chinese mythological monster. Yuan Yuan then morphs into a beautiful crane fairy, danced with a frail grace by Zhang Jiang. Her attentive cavalier, Sheng Shidong, accompanies her to the land of the cranes. Where snowflakes would have floated across the stage, a coterie of sylph-like cranes welcome the couple to their enchanted world.  

Yuan Yuan and her cavalier find themselves in the Porcelain Kingdom, where they are received by a parade of items come to life that any Chinese household would be familiar with: fans, silk, toffee hawthorns, kites and peg tops, the last of which featured a man turning endlessly en pointe. "This is a dream that only a Chinese girl could have," said Feng Ying, artistic director.

Arguably the most entertaining of all, judging from audience reaction, was the 'Mother Ginger' segment. Instead of Mother Ginger, however, came a giant golden pig of prosperity whose doors opened to spill forth dancing golden ingots. Children are an integral part of any Nutcracker production; they appeared in this one piece and it proved most charming.

The final pas de deux was phrased beautifully. Zhang’s wrists beckoned softly and her gaze never failed to drift back to her cavalier as she was partnered tenderly by Sheng, who seemed genuinely entranced by her.

Despite the entertainment and beauty, I was left with a nagging feeling of incompleteness. This was not entirely due to the fact that the Sugar Plum variation was noticeably absent. I found myself longing for choreography that ascends on the wings of Tchaikovsky’s emotive music. Music and dance are inextricably linked in any ballet and this production felt akin to a lovely veneer of colour and movement. I soon realized it was because the ballet did not feel like a finished piece, culturally - it had not yet reached a sense of home.

As the curtain fell on the lavish production, the stage darkened with a simulation of firecrackers exploding and I wondered at what lies at the cultural heart of a tradition. Is it too much of a challenge to attempt appropriation of a foreign work with no more than a local overlay?

I watched audience members' reactions to the ballet with interest; people identified, aloud, each divertissement's representation as it appeared onstage - the kite, the fan. These adaptations resonated with the audience at their finest and were recognizable at the very least.

It would be gratifying to see this holiday classic become a new tradition for ballet in China, although I wonder whether it will live to see that day. The music is undeniably European, and one senses a fundamental disconnect. It's almost as if a story from a different time and place had reluctantly agreed to allow itself to be superimposed upon another. Still, it is an admirable and joyful work with some breathtaking moments. This balletomane certainly looks forward to witnessing an evolution of this effort, to see whether a traditional ballet can transcend the distance of culture and provenance to bring forth home.
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