The Terra Cotta Prince at Cupertino: AKA Chinese Nutcracker

27 Dec

Once upon a time; that favorite beginning for children’s tales; so it was for me in the ‘Thirties. Watching Sesame Street on PBS makes me just too chock full of outdated memories. Given Petyr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s holiday favorite, a Nutcracker by any other name still is The Nutcracker.

Cupertino is in the heart of Silicon Valley. It was once noted for its excellent cherries. Here Cupertino refers to Flint Center, Theatre Ventures International bringing The Terra Cotta Prince to its stage December 18-22; an intertwined venture with the Dalian Acrobats the San Jose/Dublin, Ireland sister city connection. Theatre Ventures International is based in San Jose; but concern lest this unusual take on La Caisse Noissete as it is called in French, impinge on box office receipts for the ballet company bearing San Jose’s name, caused the move to Cupertino, which gets a big red crate of cherries for hosting this holiday marvel.

What was the percentage? Does it even matter? The Chinese contributed the Dalian Acrobatic Troupe and Dennis Nahat’s unerring eye gto them to Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Doubtless totally irrelevant for this genius adaption of its E.T.A. Hoffman origins performance to that lilting score of Petyr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. I can say for sure that with three friends, Stephen Goldstine, Corrine Nagata and Remedios Munar, I was enchanted.

Not reading Mary Ellen Hunt’s December 18 prelude in The San Francisco Chronicle, I was unprepared for the ingenious mixture of acrobatic skill and costuming, the genuine Chinese touches displayed on stage. Every Nutcracker I have seen has been something of a pastiche of a pastiche of exotic cultures or improbable fantasies. This was imperial Russian style, late Nineteenth century and hothouse years of the Twentieth century’s first decade, where Russian diplomatic and territorial aspirations fueled subject matter many, many layers removed from the pages and protocol of diplomacy. So, no problem in witnessing a thoroughly Chinese take on the holiday staple.

Three choreographers were credited: Zhang Yong Quiang, Jin Yunjiang and Sui Wei; Art Director Yang Jiansheng and Xie Yuxi were listed for sets, Xie Yuxi for lighting. Costume Designers Xu Shimin, Zhang Shuxun, Xu Zeng and Pan Liya outdid themselves; music editors Lin Yan and Jian Dhai skillfully manipulated sequences to Petyr’s score, adding Chinese percussion at salient moments. Lin Quan stage managed; Kenneth Keith as U.S. technical director; locally John Gertbetz and Jim Fung accomplished the program and public relations. Qi Chunsheng, director of the Dalian Acrobatic Troupe, adapted the perennial holiday diversion, Dennis Nahat accomplishing the overall direction.

The overture built the excitement when ten young women roller skated around the Flint Stage, sporting snowflake-shaped boomerangs, zipping in and out, some several with split-second daring, seducing us with excitement and admiration.

The family servants prepared for the guests’ arrival, the men manipulating four white chairs; the women remove them. The quartet held their position so the audience registered admiration before collapsing. The women guests arrived, gowned in an impressive series of black and white gowns, some etched a tad with silver, short, chic and clearly preening.

Grandfather, Yao Fei, arrived in a chromium wheelchair, accompanied by nurse Liu Kexue. The chair provided gravity-calculated high jinks; falling backward and self-righting [what incredible abs!]. Grandpa tilted, fell, recovered; scarcely the stuff of decrepitude. When Grandad exited, Nurse Liu was slung across his lap.

Drosselmeyer, Lam Kwan Wing, tall, white wigged, moved with deliberate speed, his cane emitting bursts of flames at suitably musical climaxes.

A panda replaced a bear, with companion. The bottle master, a slender, limber Yu Yongian, amazed us juggling wooden wine vessels on square blocks;two layers, then a third – the latter requiring two or three repetitions before structure and balance produced the proper effect – a combination of brass cymbals and Chinese strings emphasized the repetitions of Tchaikovsky phrases during the attempts.

Acrobatic bravura, delicate virtuosity and visual surprises were sprinkled hroughout the production, one amazement to gladden the eye after another. In Act I it was heavily underscored by Cao Lei as the Treetop Doll, picking her way carefully on top of each light strung on a very solid tree. Each light her pointe landed on in the upward spiral burst into light at her step; at the finale Lei was balanced skyward at the tree’s apex, clearly its star. Thunderous applause.

Inevitably, Drosselmeyer Wing revealed a scarlet-coated warrior which he bestowed on Wang Yu Rei, the production’s Marie. Zhang Lijin wrought the expected destruction. Here, one felt dramatic coherence yielded to acrobatic brilliance, an imbalance probably corrected in later performances.

The traditional fight scene pitted Terra Cotta Warriors against Ninjas followed by Snowflakes; in grey, they bore bouquets of long-stemmed, multi-petaled flowers, swooping, swirling to the memorable music.

Act II featured some wonderful swaths of claret-hued silk, manipulated by four skillful women, climbing, displaying the material. They were followed by five parasol-toting graces, parasols patterned delicately inside and out. Lu Mingyue gradually received the entire supply, manipulating the increased supply with her toes; we watched breathlessly.

In the Grand Pas de Deux, Wang Yu Rui and Zou Yu provided the final spectacle; her postures at the finish of a phrase were impeccable, but the transitions between indicated Rui was an acrobat rather than a ballerina. Still, standing in full pointe on Yu’s stead shoulders,then on his head; nothing to be sneezed at, and Rui enjoyed Yu’s careful, steady partnering.

For the final tableau Rui returned with her Terra Cotta Warrior Toy, Drosselmeyer Wing standing behind her, in front of Chinese characters dashed on a white drop in traditional, spectacular black.

Dennis Nahat’s organization of this complicated production is admirable; one hopes The Terra Cotta Warrior returns next season to Cupertino’s Flint Auditorium.

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