The house was abuzz on Friday evening for the opening performance of Mark Morris Dance Group’s The Hard Nut. It’s been five years since Cal Performances hosted the production, and clearly fans had been anxiously awaiting its reappearance. As had I.
Conceived and choreographed by artistic director Mark Morris, The Hard Nut (which premiered in Brussels in 1991) is one of the great holiday dance shows. It’s got comedy and pizzazz; character-acting and technical dance; visual dynamism and choreographic depth; delightfully unexpected surprises, all set to Tchaikovsky’s terrific Nutcracker Suite score. It tells the Nutcracker story, while holding true to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original 1816 plot. Disclaimer: if you haven’t read Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, a few characters and storylines in The Hard Nut will be new to you, some that traditional versions of the ballet tend to omit. But Morris honors the literary material, successfully weaving in these less common parts of the narrative. The result is a fun two-act fête, sparkling with Mark Morris Dance Group’s signature blend of creativity and gumption.
Act I starts in a familiar place, Christmas Eve at the Stahlbaum residence. Though in The Hard Nut, the scene is a roaring, vibrant 1970s soirée. Ball gowns and tuxedos are replaced by mini-dresses and pantsuits; grand waltzes by disco; sipped champagne by guzzled cocktails. Amidst geometric design, enviable mid-century furniture, and a fake white Christmas tree, Dr. Stahlbaum (Morris), Mrs. Stahlbaum (John Heginbotham), and their children Louise (Lesley Garrison) Marie (Lauren Grant) and Fritz (Brian Lawson) deck the halls in style with their family and friends. Including, of course, Drosselmeier (Billy Smith) who arrives at the party with an air of magic and mystery. The booze flows freely, the guests get festive, in some cases, a bit sloppy. And as gifts are exchanged, Marie is presented with her treasured Nutcracker, an exact likeness of Drosselmeier.
Like in Hoffmann’s story, Marie’s siblings and the Stahlbaum’s housekeeper (Brandon Randolph) have an expanded role in Morris’ Nut. Louise pouts and preens like a moody teenager, Fritz runs wild and Randolph, bouréeing hurriedly on pointe, tries desperately and hilariously to keep some decorum. At midnight, there is the typical battle, this time between rats and buff G.I. Joe action figures, during which the Nutcracker (Aaron Loux) also comes to life. It feels as if this fight scene is significantly shorter than others, or maybe Morris moves it along better. In any event, that is just fine in my opinion.
Act II finds Marie being told the tale of Princess Pirlipat by Drosselmeier. While a huge part of Hoffmann’s book, this is one of those storylines rarely present in stage versions of The Nutcracker. Drosselmeier relays that, as an infant, Princess Pirlipat was the victim of the Rat Queen’s evil spell, which transformed the child’s appearance from sweet to ghastly. Only one could reverse her plight – the Nutcracker. And so, Drosselmeier goes in search of that being, traveling the world. The genius here is that this part of the narrative explains why the Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, Russian and French divertissements are in Act II. The highly technical Chinese pas de trois particularly stood out with its echappés, parallel turns and hops on pointe.
The Hard Nut has two primary duets: one for Marie and the Nutcracker in Act II and one for Drosselmeier and the Nutcracker in Act I. Both are joyful and ebullient, filled with a forward energy – long extensions in arabesques, deep lunges, outstretched arms. But choreographically, it is the two large ensemble sequences that really shine. Dressed identically, the women and men of the company exuberantly leap across the stage for the snow scene at the end of Act I. Long jetés and piqué arabesques abound, as do whirling pas de chat and chaîné turns in plié, the performers continually tossing handfuls of snow into the air. And because they were throwing the snow rather than just dancing while it fell from the rafters, it was easier to buy into the idea that they were the snow themselves. In Act II, the company returned in another full ensemble variation, the Waltz of the Flowers, gloriously led by Heginbotham. Visually, The Hard Nut’s waltz is a stunning bouquet – varied, elegant and clever. But it was Morris’ complete commitment to three/four meter that truly stunned and amazed. Whether turning, upside down or in relevé; in canon, unison or a wave; in balancé, grand rond de jambe or arabesque, the waltz pulse was so, so, so strong.
Morris used the grand pas de deux music to welcome the full cast back to the stage, followed by featured moments for Marie and the Nutcracker. Though the choreography was a little busy footwork-wise, Loux cycled through his solo with expertise while Grant soared through her series of glissades and bourées.
It’s not often that I’m so taken with a holiday ballet, but as the curtain closed on The Hard Nut, it was clear that this is an exemplary production, both in intention and execution. The Hard Nut runs at Cal Performances until Christmas Eve.