December 18th, 2013

piranha - bored blunt cut.

Theater: Nutcracker, The Terracotta Prince (Ballet)

Nutcracker, The Terracotta Prince
An Eastern spin on the holiday classic, The Nutcracker!

When I was a little girl, my father would take me to Ballet San Jose’s annual production of The Nutcracker. I’ve lost track of how many times I saw the show, but I feel like I know it by heart.

I was randomly surfing the Internet when I stumbled across the announcement for Nutcracker, The Terracotta Prince, a Chinese spin on the classic tale. Choreographed Dennis Nahat, by the same man who had choreographed San Jose’s production, it appeared to be the same story but with additional Chinese elements. I was intrigued, and immediately asked Jeans if she wanted to go. She agreed, and we had soon found some reasonably priced tickets to the show.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the story of the Nutcracker, here’s a brief rundown of the traditional, European version, as performed by San Jose. It’s Christmas Eve. The magician Drosselmeyer entertains the children at a Christmas party with his magic tricks. His niece, usually named Clara but here called Marie, receives a special nutcracker as a gift. Her brother breaks it in a fit, but the nutcracker is repaired. During the night, after the children have gone to bed, the Nutcracker comes to life and does battle with the Mouse King. He is very nearly defeated, but at the last moment Marie saves the nutcracker by killing the Mouse King herself. The Nutcracker transforms into a Prince, and freed from his prison, he offers to take Marie back to his kingdom. When they arrive in his court, his parents are overjoyed to see him, and they throw a ball in his honor. Representatives from around the world present dances to the returned Prince and his new consort. After a final dance between the Prince and Marie, she is returned to her home, where she awakens in her bed with the Nutcracker in her arms.

Nutcracker, The Terracotta Prince follows the same basic outline. The scene is moved from a European manor to the home of a modern, wealthy Asian family. Drosselmeyer’s tricks are those of a street performer – shooting fire, creating bouquets out of thin air, that sort of thing – but he also brings a toy panda to life so it can dance for the children. Fritz, Marie’s brother, is obviously the favored son, which makes sense in this Chinese household, where boys are nearly always preferred. Instead of a Nutcracker, Marie is given a little terracotta warrior figure.

Then the story suddenly switches gears. Instead of the Mouse King and his furry cohorts, Marie’s home is invaded by ninjas. Yes. Ninjas. You read that correctly. Why Nahat felt the need to remove the mice is beyond me – they certainly have them in China – but soon the Terracotta Warrior is at war. When the lead ninja drops his sword, Marie stabs him, defeating the evil. The Terracotta Warrior pulls off his clay face, revealing a handsome prince who invites Marie to join him at a fabulous party where acrobats, contortionists and dancers perform for her amusement.

To my surprise, this was not a ballet. There is some dancing, but nothing that I would consider true ballet – rather, it’s what you would get if someone who has seen ballet on TV but never been classically trained attempted to dance The Nutcracker. But the amateur dancing is only a small part of the spectacle, which is dominated by more traditional Chinese artists. There are acrobats hanging from the ceiling, twirling around long pieces of red silk. There’s a contortionist who twists herself into knots while balancing burning candlesticks. Tumblers leap onto and over each other, making human pyramids. A woman balances paper parasols while standing on her head. Snowflake plates balanced on sticks twirl as the dancers steady them below. It’s a completely different type of performance.

I really enjoyed it. Like I said, I grew up on Nahat’s interpretation of the Nutcracker, so I recognized many of the elements of his choreography and storytelling style in the Chinese production. I also have his version of the story more or less memorized, so it was very easy for me to follow the action and figure out what was going on. I think that Jeans had a little more trouble with this, or maybe she’s just more jaded to the tricks of Asian acrobats, because she didn’t like it nearly as much as I did. But then again, I love the Nutcracker, and a new twist on the classic tale is just the sort of holiday surprise I look forward to.