-- A Chinese New Year Nutcracker
Michael Mao originated the concept of resetting Tchaikovsky's 'The Nutcracker" for 1937 Chinese or Lunar New Year Celebration. Copyrighted in 1998, the full production opened at Pepsico-Purchase Theater in New York and was toured in 2002 by MILKY WAY throughout CHINA.
Michael Mao on the Idea of FireCracker
¡±For many years I fantasized about re-setting Tschaikovsky¡¯s holiday classic. Four years ago I decided to act on the idea. But how to re-set it in a way that is relevant to me, to dancers I have who are usually diverse (multicultural/multiracial/multinational), and to today¡¯s audience?
Then I had the occasion to visit Shanghai, my birthplace, which I left at 5. I had remembered very few details: my babysitter called Seven-Pounder (Arh tsyt or Ah Zi) (she weighed 7 pounds at birth; She came from Shao ); the French candy store, a restaurant on the Bund; the hoarse call of the cleaver-man in Shanghai Dialect on a humid, lazy afternoon; the moment when the train pulled out of the Station and I realized that Seven-Pounder was not coming with us. I was not prepared for it, and was inconsolable.
Returning to Shanghai for the first time was very emotional for me. Many people looked just like me. In Hongkew, a tailor lifted the store sign to reveal a former one: ¡®Shlomos Deliketessen¡¯ [sic.] Parts of the city are still lined with 19th century European buildings, Dutch, French, American Colonial, Italianate. My family had lived in the Former French Concession; Streets are still lined with French Maple trees. An 80 year-old ex-neighbor asked me if I was Mrs. Mao¡¯s naughty son; my face was, as she said, ¡®a carbon copy¡¯ of my mother.
On top of all this heady stuff we stayed at the Peace Hotel, which used to be the Sassoon House, situated on the River Huangpu. That evening I read the history of the house. The Sassoons were one of the many Sephardic families in Shanghai. There was a thriving Jewish community in Shanghai, with its own nightclub, synagogues, mansions, and in the early twentieth century the Sassoons outdid everyone by moving out of the French Concession and into their own penthouse on top of their office building. The luxuries: hot and cold running water, central heating, restaurant below, all the New York comforts then and now. Another wealthy family was the Hardoons; one of them married a Chinese woman. They adopted many interracial children, and one of them has been a long time friendly neighbor of ours on West End Avenue in New York City.
Standing by the window of my room in the art-deco Peace Hotel and looking down at the Bund on the Huangpu River, which flows into the China Sea, I thought, ¡®Why not here, in Shanghai?¡¯ I used to ask my mother why we eventually came to New York? She had said, ¡®Well, New York was the closest thing to Shanghai¡¯.¡±
Ming Cho Lee on designing the set:
¡°When Michael first approached me about FIRECRACKER, it was not to request my participation in the production, but to ask for recommendations of other designers who might be appropriate. I, however, found myself immediately intrigued by the premise of a Chinese ¡®Nutcracker¡¯. First, because I had never seen a ¡®Nutcracker¡¯ production. It was one of those lurking realities that I saw an opportunity to resolve. Also, FIRECRACKER seemed to be a version of the original that I was ideally suited to because of my intimate knowledge of the culture and time period. I felt I could contribute to Michael¡¯s vision.
After we agreed to collaborate, I did finally see a few productions of the nutcracker, and acquainted myself with the storyline and the traditional production. It confirmed for me that a ¡®Nutcracker¡¯ for a more diverse audience is well suited for our time. And why not a Chinese ¡®Nutcracker¡¯?
I grew up in Shanghai during the 1930¡¯s, a period which Michael is using as the historical backdrop. I remember it has having a very multi-cultural identity. It was the predominant characteristic of the city.
With regard to the design elements for the production, I am taking both liberties and closely following the dictates of the time and place. The traditional English design of the original I largely disregard. I want the set to be representative of Shanghai, a combination of western and eastern influences. The style I employ is inspired by art deco with traditional Chinese elements thrown in such as the use of color. Also I am using ¡®pop¡¯ art as a tool to translate the magical qualities of the production. Having a portrait of Shirley Temple in the bedroom is a touch I am particularly fond of because of its references and appeal. The story is about kids. Everything is overscale, about three-quarters bigger than normal. The colors are also more saturated that I typically use. For each region that the children visit I employ a different stylistic theme to dramatize the locale. My goal is to have a background that is never static but helps in illustrating the journey the children make throughout the work.
I think to do a ¡®Nutcracker¡¯ is every designer¡¯s dream, especially a version where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This project essentially is larger than any one collaborator. And, as a result, there is a lot one can artistically ¡®sink one¡¯s teeth into¡¯, which is why I feel fortunate to be involved in this particular production.¡±