Mark Morris Dance Company: “The Hard Nut”

Mark Morris Dance Group
Cal Performances: UC Berkeley
December 15 – December 24, 2017

“The Hard Nut”

This Holiday favorite returns to Zellerbach Hall after a five year absence. It deserves a hearty welcome and will delight audiences young, old, and older. (There are five matinee scheduled.) Morris has transformed the familiar old Russian story, originally brought to America by Willam Christensen for the San Francisco Ballet (1944) and George Balanchine (1954), into a contemporary, joyous, satirical spectacle. As in the original, there is sentiment and magic, but also expert dancing including tough G.I. Joes, gender bending snowflakes and go-go boots. Morris himself is on stage: this time not as the Arabian dancer (as he did long ago) but as Dr. Stahlbaum/King, the head of a mad, contemporary family.

The story of “The Hard Nut” transforms the original E.T.A. Hoffman story wherein Clara (here named Marie, danced by Lauren Grant) visits the Land of Sweets, a magical kingdom populated by dolls and unique characters of all sorts. The Nutcracker, transformed into a prince, takes her there. Instead, Morris has Drosselmeier (the family’s uncle-magician, Billy Smith) tell Marie a story about a King and Queen who lost their baby girl to the Rat Queen, who deformed the child’s face. The child can only regain her beauty only after a young man cracks ‘the hard nut.’ Drosselmeier’s nephew (the transformed Nutcracker) accomplishes this. Marie and he become lovers. The naughty sister and brother are punished. Characters from around the world offer their native styles. Everyone dances.

In the course of all this, we are entertained by a variety of houseguests, wearing ‘now’ costumes, (by Martin Pakledinaz) behaving wildly exhibiting sassy 20th and 21th century ‘club’ movement. They are besieged by the family’s children, teenager Louise (Lesley Garrison) and naughty brother Fritz (Brian Lawson). If there is any order, it is kept by the Housekeeper/Nurse, adeptly played by Brandon Randolf in black toe shoes. During the course of many wild and wonderful set changes (Adrian Label, set design), we travel through dreams and storytelling to Act II. There’s lots to see.

All the dancing is expert, but in addition to the wonderful characterization of individual performers, the loudest applause goes to the snowflakes. Twenty-two members of the company, men and women, in white tutus, run, leap, hit the floor and continually throw snow on stage to the familiar waltz, hitting the accents with skilled leaps.

The Tchaikovsky’s score (The Nutcracker, Op. 71, 1891-92) is admirably played by the Berkeley Symphony under the direction of Colin Fowler. The Piedmont Easy Bay Children’s Choir Ensemble sang to accompany the snowflakes. It was delightful!

Other spectacular event include the various ‘native’ dances: Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, Russian and French. Each was marked with satirical aspects as Morris find the characteristic foible in every nationality. The Russians, in outlandishly multi-colored costumes, stole the show with their energy, fast foot work and funny faces. Besides all that, Mrs. Stahlbaum, (John Heginbotham) now the Queen in Drosselmeir’s story, directs fourteen flowers in another of Morris’ spectacular waltzes. In someways this piece is even more outlandish than the ‘snow’ dance: the group weaves in and out of one another to satirize dances that are made this way and sometimes, they just lie down on the floor and exercise!

It is wonderful to have the Mark Morris Dance Company back in Berkeley. Over the years they have brought audiences skilled dancing, romantic adventures and over and over again, “The Hard Nut,” a spectacle for the Holidays that brings down the house.

Joanna G. Harris

Photo above: “Snow”
Danced by the Mark Morris Dance Group
Photo by Frank Wing
Courtesy of Cal Performance