National Ballet of China’s The Chinese New Year, a Chinese adaptation of the Christmas classic The Nutcracker is without a doubt the most extravagant celebration of the national holiday that any resident of China could hope for. Using the original music by Tchaikovsky, performed wonderfully by the National Ballet of China Symphony Orchestra, this 2010 version of the production was choreographed by Zhao Ming, Fang Yuanyuan and Feng Ying.

<i>Chinese New Year</i> © National Ballet of China
Chinese New Year
© National Ballet of China

The ballet opens with a scene of hasty preparation under the eaves of traditional style rooves. Children play in the foreground while adults bustle about between stalls, buying last minute supplies for what is China’s biggest (and, for some, only) annual holiday. An old man cycles through on his Flying Pigeon bicycle. A tiny dog wearing a red coat to match his owner’s goes missing briefly, and our little anti-hero Tuantuan (Wang Hao) – his mittens hanging from his neck – saves the day by bringing the little animal back to his owner.

Climbing present-laden out of a pedicab comes the foreign friend of Tuantuan and Yuanyuan’s father. A distinctly foreign face subs in for Drosselmeyer; I was rather surprised to find out that this distinguished guest was in fact the Swedish Ambassador, Lars Peter Fredén (decent stage presence, but he probably shouldn’t quit his day job).

Tuantuan and his friends bully his sister, Yuanyuan (Zhan Xinlu) and hers, when she refuses to share the little regimental doll given to her by the family’s foreign friend. The threat of danger returns when, clad in green dragon masks and wielding nunchucks, they attack. The living Nutcracker (Sun Ruichen) saves Yuanyuan with help from his band of sword-bearing tigers and a First Aid rabbit.

<i>Chinese New Year</i> © National Ballet of China
Chinese New Year
© National Ballet of China

In her dream, the nightdress-clad heroine, Yuanyuan transforms into the beautiful Crane Goddess (Zhang Jian) with the help of a huge fifteen-foot tall fairy. The Crane Goddess replaces the Sugar Plum Fairy as the overseer of the land and partner to the Cavalier dressed in regimentals.

Led by soloist Lu Na, the flock of Cranes was a stunning sight. Graceful and extremely birdlike in their feathery white costumes, the ballerinas flitted about the stage together in near perfect unison. Clean port de bras were notable in these lovely dancers.

Honouring the ancient art of Chinese pottery, the Cloisonne dance features ballerinas dressed in the classic blue and white of Chinese porcelain, wearing wonderful little spout-shaped hats in the same traditional design. There were similar scenes with other traditional Chinese products as the focal point, such as the Coryphée of Silk dance by Lu Na, one in which thirteen small children appeared from within a huge golden piggy-bank representing well-being and treasure, and others including fireworks and kites.

The kite scene (featuring Liu Qi and Wang Jiyu) hinted not only at the ever-popular Chinese tradition of kite flying, but also to a common childhood game in which a live insect is tied to a string and becomes a toy. The living ballerina wore a yellow butterfly (a familiar kite pattern) overlaid on her white tutu, while her captor held tightly onto the string about her waist.

<i>Chinese New Year</i> © National Ballet of China
Chinese New Year
© National Ballet of China

The almost carnivalesque nature of the countless group scenes, and the bright vivid costumes worn by ever-changing character figures, drew significant focus away from the choreography itself. Though the busier scenes were admirable – if avoiding potential chaos is a measure of success – there were many moments at which I felt overwhelmed by the number of bodies on stage, doing totally different things.

The quieter scenes, such as the pas de deux between Sun Ruichen and Zhang Jian, were beautifully rendered by the dancers. These two made an especially impressive pair. Their solos, much a chance for each of them to flex their talent and demonstrate their prowess, illustrated this pretty clearly.

One wonders how Petipa and Tchaikovsky would feel about The Dance of the Toffee Hawthorns (a local sweet snack) or The Dance of the Peg-Top, among others, but all in all The Chinese New Year is an admirable ode to both a western ballet classic and to Chinese culture. Most of all, it is a particularly fun way to spend a cold evening in the run up to Spring Festival. 

***11