Mark Morris Dance Group

"The Hard Nut"

Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA

December 2, 2001
by Toba Singer

Have you, or has anyone dear to you danced 56 performances of "The Nutcracker" in six weeks, managed to grab time for coffee at a Starbucks two steps from the stage door, only to hear the Tchaikovsky score piped via muzak into that one and only temporary refuge? Feeling stalked by a relentless Nutcracker culture is what must have inspired Mark Morris to kick open the crack in "Hard Nut" for a broad range of appreciative audiences in the Bay Area (and Brooklyn).

As funny as those sequences that don't rely on knowing the story or choreography of Nutcracker may be, for those who have seen "The Nutcracker" once or repeatedly, Morris' send-up is all the more hilarious. Examples: The cast member who plays Drosselmeier is warned 'round about October not to play the character as a dirty old man. This Drosselmeier (Rob Besserer) can't resist a little peek up Marie's skirt as he preens and fluffs it. When this Drosselmeier does his three grand arm sweeps, the clock grows instead of the tree (the tree grows later, along with the family sofa).

The suburban '70s retro set opens on a Christmas-party licentiousness that is far more frequently associated with the holidays than the sentimental scene we get in the original. The slow-paced gavotte danced by the guests is instead a series of seventies Saturday Night Fever-type favorites. Michelle Ward and Joe Bowie set the pace with a red-hot rendering of The Bump. Instead of a wooden soldier pairing with a wind-up doll, we have a doll and a robot, who dance the can-can with Drosselmeier and Mrs. Stahlbaum. Drosselmeier doesn't waste any time remonstrating the trying little Fritz (Joan Omura). He simply gives him the shortest glimpse of what's under his eye patch--and to great effect. Fritz is so freaked, that he proceeds to pull a hamstring on his next foray into danger. Marie (Lauren Grant) punches Fritz in the stomach, as the nuclear (family) meltdown continues to the accompaniment of Mrs. Stahlbaum (danced ever so maternally by Peter Wing Healey) popping pills, and the guests sloshing through the cocktail hour. Mark Morris is at his best when dancing the mutton-chopped guest who traipses onstage with a swag of toilet paper stuck to his shoe before collapsing in a stupor onto the sofa.

Remote-controlled rats with red electronic eyes skitter across the stage to presage Marie's dream. The Adrienne Lobel sets are Warhol-like depictions of suburban Scandia-modern decor. As the Christmas tree and sofa grow, diminutizing Marie and her dream characters, the G.I. Joes emerge. They make short work of beheading their mouse opponents for God to sort out. What's left standing at the end looks more like 6 a.m. at the End-Up Bar on Harrison and Sixth Streets than the chaotic confusing pile-up of balky adolescents who dance this scene in the Nutcracker equivalents we've seen.

Before we know it, we're into Snow, which is less of a pas de deux and more of a corps de ballet triumph. The use of the live University of California Women's Chorus adds dimension to this lovely riff. Snow does not descend from above, as is traditional. Instead dancers adroitly exit the stage and return with fistfuls of the stuff, which they discharge at the peak of every grand jete. Arms are in the walk-like-an-Egyptian pose just before they let go the white stuff. At other times, a big wad of it is launched from an arabesque arm. In this heavenly snowball fight, the dancers are never off the fast-paced music, adding to the comedy. They are bare feet; both sexes in what traditionalists would consider girl costumes. Working in parallel (or what used to be called "turned in") lends yet another comedic dimension to this riotous number. Technique--well--it's hard to say much about technique. Some of the dancers have more, better technique than others. All bring exuberance and fine timing to their ensemble work, and that more than meets the requirements of the piece.

In Act II, a giant Mercator Projection map is displayed above the stage. At the start of the Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Arabian variations, a red bulb lights up the corresponding countries on the map, perhaps a helpful guide for some whose '70s-or-thereafter education did not include Geography. Morris dances the Arabian variation, diaphanously-swathed as if nude, with a coryphée of suitors who, shoulders on floor, undulate their pelvises in the air with great expectation. It is not a beautiful sight, given that Morris' body is rather corpulent at this stage of the game. The segment brings to mind a Lamaze class, or even floor barre, rather than something more Casbah-inspired. The Spanish variation leans heavily on the original, if only a bit more outré. Sugar Plum—or was it Marzipan?—is a very clipped "Ladies Who Shop" piece. The two ladies are accompanied by attendants, one of who looks suited up to be an elevator operator, and we can't help but think that the inspiration here comes from "The Nutcracker Suite" droning endlessly from department store elevator speakers during Christmas season. Flowers droop until inspired to stand erect by the love between the Hard Nut Cracker and Marie. In order to fit the music, the joke goes on a bit long. This is the only shortcoming of the farce: The jokes don't always hold the audience long enough to accommodate the music, and so there are a few moments when our attention wanders or drifts into dreamland—ours, not Marie's.

Overall, we laugh and laugh even more, and enjoy the tempi, the music, the caricatures and the all-out assault on the nuclear family and its self- and other adornments. As I left the theater with the person who accompanied me, he remarked, "I guess it's worth taking another look at Nutcracker after seeing this." So, after all is said and done, one hand washes the other: in life, in snow, and in nuts.


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Edited by Marie.

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