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Mark Morris Dance Group: The
Visions of sugarplums beginning to clog up your head?
The perfect antidote is Mark Morris The Hard Nut which is quickly becoming as
much of a holiday tradition as department store Santas and Messiah singalongs.
Created in 1991, televised for Dance in America a year later, it premiered in
Berkeley, California in 1996 and has returned every year since, the only venue other than
New York City for this very large production.
This work has all
the best qualities of the classic Nutcracker (Tchaikovskys music and E.T.A.
Hoffmans plot) with none of the cloying sweetness that generations of balletomanes
have grown up with and, in some cases, grown sick of.
Transported in time
to the swinging era of the 60s and played for laughs, The Hard Nut is at once
a sendup of conventional Russian ballet and an homage. So, if you like your holiday cheer
with a dash of wry, youll love this.
It all begins the
night of the party, with the Stahlbaum kids glued to the television set. No angelic
siblings, these. They sulk and fight and adorable Marie, the heroine (Lauren Grant), is
not above giving her little brother a punch in the stomach. Enter Mama Stahlbaum, fat and
sassy in her red and green dress. In case you havent yet noticed that the pert
little maid, tottering in her toe shoes (Kraig Patterson), is a guy, this is where the
Morris penchant for androgyny hits you squarely in the face. Peter Wing Healey is very
funny as the mother and later the fairy tale Queen, not the least of his accomplishments
being able to dance in high heeled shoes.
The party guests
arrive, some stoned, some sloshed and all apparently dressed by Chers couturier in a
holiday mood. (Martin Pakledinazs costuming is brilliant throughout). They dance
but, if youve never seen the Bump done to Tchaikovsky, youre in for a
surprise. They exchange a glut of gifts (a Barbie Dream House for Marie, a stun gun for
her brother Fritz) and, finally, the mysterious Drosselmayer arrives with the Nutcracker
There is the usual
Rat Attack (with the defenders of the Christmas tree transformed into GI Joes), and the
business with the clock but, with the aid of Adrianne Lobels cartoon-like sets,
based on the work of Charles Burns, it all is just a little different, and a lot funnier.
choreography is wonderfully appropriate to the scenario and this is one of the few ballets
in which the actual steps can make you laugh. Later, in the snowflake scene, the dancers
(and look carefully because some of those girls in tutus actually are guys with great
legs) fling huge handfuls of white flakes all over the stage. Still farther along, the
"Waltz of the Flowers" even more men in tutus this time becomes an
hysterical rout, with the corps wilting visibly as the chunky Healey whirls in their
The old favorites,
"Danse Arabe," the "Spanish Dance" and the Chinese variations show up
but with a new twist. The "Russian Dance" is done by a fantastically
costumed sextet of nesting dolls in a good-natured parody of the original Petipa
Just when you begin
to think Morris only does funny; he throws you another curve. The Act Two pas de deux
between Drosselmayer, wonderfully danced by former company member Rob Besserer, and his
young nephew, the transformed Nutcracker (William Wagner) is utterly beautiful. The men
mirror each others movements on opposite sides of a scrim to breathtaking effect.
where Marie and her Nutcracker lover discover the passion of adolescence, holds some
lovely choreography as well, as does the whirling finale, with all the characters coming
back to say goodbye.
The music is fine,
with members of the Berkeley Symphony and the Kairos Youth Choir doing full justice to
that wonderful score. Morris himself, who appears in the party scene and joins the cast
for the bows, may just be the choreographer for the Millennium. Surely he is the one who
can take some of our cherished traditions, like The Nutcracker into the next
century in style.
Berkeley, December, 1999
- Suzanne Weiss
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