Different Nutcrackers have different stars. For some it is Dew Drop, others the Sugar Plum Fairy, and many renditions see Clara/Marie take on a leading role. But in Mark Morris’ beloved Hard Nut, it is Drosselmeier who holds court, and in the deft hands of Billy Smith, one might even say he is king.
In Mark Morris’ beloved Hard Nut, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, it is Drosselmeier who holds court, and in the deft hands of Billy Smith, one might even say he is king. As a role, Drosselmeier has enormous potential, and by staying closer to E.T.A. Hoffman’s original story, Morris incorporates the wizard-like Stahlbaum family friend throughout the production, and the role takes on a much bigger part than the slightly odd, avuncular, stand-in for Santa he can sometimes be.
Smith boasts a two-tone, Pepé Le Pew pompadour and a quilted red velvet tuxedo blazer. Entering the party scene like a lithe lothario,his Drosselmeier is jaunty, suave, knowing, and has the conceited whiff of Cristiano Ronaldo (maybe it’s the hair and cheekbones). Women at the party, including Mrs. Stahlbaum (John Heginbotham) and the Housekeeper (Brandon Randolph), swoon for him. But Smith is as seductively sexy as he is tender: his interactions with the young Marie are sweet and paternal, and his goodbye kiss to the Housekeeper is touching and gentlemanly. Morris’ choreography for Drosselmeier keeps him on a lean, angular tilt much of the time, giving him an elegant, debonair air. Smith owns the role from start to finish, and Drosselmeier’s consistent presence makes this Nutcracker cohere more than most.
The Hard Nut is perhaps best known for it’s mid-century and into the 1970s aesthetic – hilarity and highballs in the party scene, bellbottoms, checks, pompadours and beehives – based on the work of illustrator Charles Burns. The colors are predominantly, red, green, black, and white, and the overall effect is an enormously successful achievement by designers Adrianne Lobel (sets), Martin Pakledinaz (costumes) and James F. Ingalls (lighting).
The party scene is one to end all others. Morris, who thinks Balanchine’s first act is “kind of boring,” avoids this pitfall by showing humans at their entertaining worst. Adults get drunk, grab each other inappropriately, hump and dump, pass out, and the children run amok (except the saccharine sweet Marie). Guests groove and jive, and the “Soul Train” dance line quickly turns into what amounts to a swinger’s party. The Housekeeper tries to sass everyone into place, but gets caught misbehaving herself. Morris revives his role as Dr. Stahlbaum, and is, as befits his character, at turns jovial and misguided.
The battle scene, like many productions, is a bit light on solid choreography but the rats do gnaw on the legs of the G.I. Joe soldiers, which is a nice, carnal touch. Marie’s bunny slipper does in the Elvis-impersonator Rat King, and the land of snow awaits. With the dignity of a military ritual, two “Changers,” (Derek Crescenti and Weaver Rhodes) come onstage and assist Aaron Loux in his transformation from the Nutcracker into the Young Drosselmeier, i.e. Marie’s beloved. But instead of dancing with Marie (performed by MMDG veteran Lauren Grant), Morris sets a lyrical pas de deux between Drosselmeier and his nephew. This transition to snow is tender, eloquent and dignified, full of beautiful lifts, impressive partnering and grand, sloping arcs.
In order to populate the stage, Morris uses much of his troupe for the big Snowflake and Flower waltzes, clothing both male and female dancers in the same costumes. While he did this for practical reasons, the concept remains refreshing today, particularly when used in a ballet with such historically strong gender roles (there is a lot of pointe work throughout Hard Nut for both men and women).
The snow scene, at one point in time, was quoted as using up to 20 pounds of confetti per performance, and it’s one of the Hard Nut’s signature characteristics. Nearly every one of Tchaikovsky’s percussive strokes gets a burst of snow, which, makes the audience laugh and smile, but it also makes you hear the music differently, particularly the percussion and woodwinds.
An energetic romp, the snow scene uses waltz moves, jazzy passés, vigorous leaps and gallops. Steps which are often siloed and kept separate in traditional choreography are alternated here to striking and splendid effect. Morris’ literal interpretation of the music (the charging gallops at the end in particular), is witty and by its own indulgence becomes a kind of parody of the traditional snow scene. Nearly everyone went to intermission with a smile on their face, thanks both to Morris’ joyous sendup of the prissily perfect snow scene, and the sheer glee that results from his commitment to a “go big or go home” ethos. Morris doesn’t do flurries, he gives you a blizzard.
In keeping with Hoffman’s story within a story, the second act opens with Drosselmeier rushing to Marie, who has come down with a terrible fever. He tells her a tale about a King and Queen whose baby daughter, Pirlipat, suffered facial mauling at the hands of the Rat Queen (this gruesome scene happens onstage but stays contained within the baby’s pram). This can be undone if a man named Drosselmeier finds a hard nut, which needs to be cracked with ease by a young man who then has to step backwards seven times (yes really). If Drosselmeier does not find the hard nut, he faces decapitation; his search takes him around the globe.
The Spanish dance featured Domingo Estrada Jr. as a matador in a pompadour the size of a tricorne hat. Michelle Yard partnered him with gusto, dressed as a bull. Morris’ Arabian, a role in which he used to star, was difficult to read. A veiled seductress, accompanied by four be-robed men in aviator shades, temporarily woos Drosselmeier. It was difficult to understand who was supposed to be seducing whom. The Chinese dance was pert, perky and fairly traditional, full of fast pointe work and échappés. The Russian dance, a group of happy, jovial peasants, was a whirlwind of kaleidoscopic color, the dancers drowning in yards of multi-colored fabric that went to the floor. The traditional “danse des mirlitons” is here, simply called “French,” and has two male and two female dancers doing a bit of high-street shopping and Vogue reading, styled in Dior’s New Look fashions. It’s funny if a little flimsy.
The Waltz of the Flowers has even more of the Busy Berkeley-ness than the snow scene, largely in its formations and skirt swishing. Actual swimming motions are embodied, and at dancers lie end to end on the floor, holding each other’s ankles and rocking back and forth. When upright, there is a droopiness to them, like top-heavy buds. All in all it is an energetic number with an ebullient John Heginbotham at the helm as the Queen.
Morris’ Nut is not only iconoclastic, it is also one of the most romantic. There is no icy, academically perfect, Aurora-like pas de deux to be found here. The grandiose solo music for the Nutcracker/Young Drosselmeier in the second act, is a twittery solo, with Loux pulling out all the petit allegro stops to show off for a giggling, blushing Marie.
Grant, who has been performing Marie for many years and in The Hard Nut for two decades, is, of course, perfect as Marie, not just due to her petite stature but for her rich dramatic capabilities. The two together look like a pair of puppy lovers on the school playground, a touch on the shoulder here, a whisper there, shivers, and shudders, giggles and gasps. Marie’s solo is full of it, and the irrepressible joy of a new, but deep love.
The Hard Nut can, in places, feel uneven choreographically but on the whole there is little to quibble about. Few alternative takes on tradition survive this long and The Hard Nut remains as subversive as it is satisfying. May this nutty Nut continue for many years to come.