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 (Tchaikovsky’s music and E.T.A. Hoffman’s 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, you’ll 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 haven’t 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 Cher’s couturier in a holiday mood. (Martin Pakledinaz’s costuming is brilliant throughout). They dance but, if you’ve never seen the Bump done to Tchaikovsky, you’re 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 doll.
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 Lobel’s cartoon-like sets, based on the work of Charles Burns, it all is just a little different, and a lot funnier.
Morris’ quirky 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 midst.
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 choreography.
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 other’s movements on opposite sides of a scrim to breathtaking effect.
The denouement, 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.