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Lyrical, Witty and Nutty as a Fruitcake: The Hard Nut Swings Back Into Town

The Hard Nut
Mark Morris Dance Group
[presented by Cal Performances]
Zellerbach Hall
Berkeley, California
[December 10-28, 2003]
December 12, 2003

by Paul Parish
copyright © 2003 by Paul Parish

Berkeley likes to think that Mark Morris belongs here. THe director of Cal Performances, Robert Cole, not only books Morris 's company several times a year, and has set up a semi-official residency for the company at Zellerbach Auditorium, but when Christmas rolls around, Cole actually conducts the orchestra for Morris's brilliant burlesque of the Nutcracker, the really big show called The Hard Nut, which opened last Friday night once again to a delighted audience, many of whom see it every year instead of the "regular" Nutcracker.

I've myself seen it every year since it first opened here in 1996—it's played with a few breaks, almost every year since—and I find it to be, like a great comic opera, mysteriously intricate and deep, and that the more I see it, the more satisfying it becomes. This year I was shocked to realize how romantic The Hard Nut is—despite all its overt ironies, and the manifold gay references, the pas de deux for Marie (Lauren Grant) and the Nutcracker (David Leventhal) made me cry, it was so beautiful, so touching, so delicate and poignant and fresh and musical, and so beautifully danced. It has I think become more classical, more mythic, more universal over the years, as this couple has taken over the roles—rather as Apollo evolved with Farrell and Martins in the roles, except that in the case of the Hard Nut, Leventhal and Grant are musical, generous, classical in their way of moving, and WARM. This is how our parents should have fallen in love.

When a burlesque turns out to have staying power, like Pope's Rape of the Lock or Mark Morris's Hard Nut, it's—at least in these two cases—because of the extraordinary tenderness and lyricism the poet sneaks in behind the dazzling wit.

Morris has made The Hard Nut as nutty as a fruit-cake. The show was his last big piece (in 1991) for the Opera House in Brussels (the Theatre de la Monnaie) and takes its look from the "psychopathology-of-everyday-life" cartoons of Charles Burns (Dog Boy, Big Baby). The Christmas party is 70's-style post-hippies drugs-and-alcohol bash with kids; the friends get drunk and maudlin and the kids are bratty (which makes Marie really rather a lot like Cinderella, the only reasonable and lovely person in a vulgar comic world aside from fairy-godfather Drosselmeyer—Rob Besserer, who is like the character he plays, the coolest thing that ever was ). Morris himself is a party guest who disappears at one point and returns trailing a length of toilet-paper from his shoe.

His dancers are fabulous at all this—after a dozen years, several of the originators of the parts have begun to drop out, and I could not resist applauding when the door opened and Kraig Patterson came out as the maid. It is a fabulous role, he is sweet and warm and hilarious and moving in it, the genius loci—I was SO glad to see him back. The company manager, Barry Alterman, is fantastically stage-worthy as the paterfamilias. John Hegginbotham makes a very satisfying substitute for the celebrated drag artiste, Peter Wing Healey, who created the role of Mrs. Stahlbaum and was Divine in it. But I could name everybody.

What makes The Hard Nut so remarkable is that it is a comment on updated-Nucrackeritis as well as a satisfying ballet in itself. Morris does not need to belabor any jokes—he knows what's in the air, what will come to mind without his having to do much more than allude to it—with the result that The Hard Nut seems more "commercial" (in the sense that Oklahoma! is commercial) than the whole spate of Nutcrackers that jumped on the bandwagon, and yet more chaste, more faithful to the score and to the subtext than the overtly Freudianized versions of Baryshnikov, and more community-spirited than the Dance Brigade's wonderful mess, The Revolutionary Nutcracker Sweetie. Sticking to the same general outlines as Balanchine—well, since Morris is as devoted to the music as Balanchine, he pretty much has to follow its libretto and gives us a big Christmas party, a phantasmagoric post-party dream-nightmare conflict, and perhaps the greatest snow-scene of them all. The whole is so inventive, the jokes come so fast, the matching of American pop dancing (the bump, the Hokey-pokey, Soul Train antics) to the Victorian party-dance rhythms of the score is so shrewd and apt, and the Doonesbury-ish social observations so adroit, the audience doesn't know what hit them, and many are still laughing at passages where what's in fact happening is radiant, soaring, sublime.

Morris's strategy is like that the Trockaderos used with their Swan Lake—Front-load the jokes, and then gradually transform the parody into A) neutral classicism and then B) break your heart, all joking aside, with sincere emotional Romantic style. Actually it's not as simple as that, for it comes in waves rather than as a steady change—nothing in the wild-and-crazy party scene is as gut-bustingly funny as the Merry-Melody Waltz of the Vegetable Kingdom, where the dancers virtually wallow in the rich juices of all those French horn chords. But as the music of the grand pas begins, the tone of the dancing changes into something quite exalted—the lovers acknowledge each other in the grandest, clearest gestural language—"She's my girl," he says, lifting his arm and saluting her as a pair of dancers raise her up and wheel her through the skies, and she reciprocates, the same gesture, the same helicoptering lift.

And it keeps getting more romantic. Both of them dance to the celesta music (i.e., the Sugar-Plum Fairy's solo), and where the music imitates the "warning-sound" of French chiming clocks, he kisses her—on the hand—she dances away, shudders, comes back for more, he kisses the other hand, and kisses her and kisses her and kisses her. I can't think of a stronger instance of a choreographer's finding the REAL meaning of a musical effect; Tchaikovsky was picking up an element in Hofmann's text—the excitement inherent in that audible spring-release which comes five minutes before the chime goes off—which he incorporated among the other clockwork effects he built into the Sugar-Plum Fairy's variation. Tchaikovsky made a little abstract drama of them, packing them together stretti—followed by a "delirious" cascade of tiny little notes in the celesta—to which in The Hard Nut Marie dances a little dance of mounting excitement almost gone over the top. The dance ends with them spinning and spinning, joined in an unending kiss. Not even Romeo and Juliet makes so much out of a kiss—and, in a show that's so "gay-friendly," maybe I need to emphasize that it is a heterosexual kiss.

But the most tender gesture of all is a hand to the cheek. He reaches down, all the way to the ground, and then lifts his hand up and places it under her cheek, like a pillow—which becomes the support for a ravishing balance in attitude. In its most elaborate version, they both do this move, in profile to us, and with each supporting the other, both rise into attitude.

A pas de deux takes its character from its imagery and from the quality of the support the dancers give each other - and this one is as distinctive and surprising as that of Bugaku. It is also a repeat, almost verbatim, of a pas de deux Drosselmeyer danced with the Young-Drosselmeyer/Nutcracker character in Marie's first-act dream (to the Snow Transformation music). As indeed, Marie's first little dance to the celesta music is a repeat of her mother's solo at the very beginning of the show: precipitée sous-sus, precipitée precipitée sous-sus, precipitée precipitée precipitée sous-sus. Morris announces his motifs like Beethoven, and the uses he makes of them knit the fabric together at a profound level, which make me feel it's built to last.

I ran into a friend in the lobby as I left—we were both shaking our heads, wondering what had happened to us. It was like a dream.


First - Members of the Mark Morris Dance Group in the The Hard Nut. Photo: Peter DaSilva
Second - Barry Alterman as Dr. Stahlbaum (left), Kraig Patterson as the housekeeper (middle), and John Heginbotham (right) as Mrs. Stahlbaum. photo: Courtesy of Mark Morris Dance Group/Cal Performances
Third - Lauren Grant as Marie and David Levanthal as the Nutcracker Prince. Photo: Ken Friedman

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 15
December 15, 2003
Copyright ©2003 by Paul Parish




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last updated on December 15, 2003