Since it was first performed in the US in the early 1990s, I have wanted to see Mark Morris’ The Hard Nut. I’ve seen the American Ballet Theatre perform The Nutcracker but I knew Morris’ interpretation would be fun. And now that I have seen it, I’m so disappointed that I didn’t see it sooner. What I love about Morris’ choreography is that it is so joyful – every step, every arm movement, every turn of the head is full of joy. I was smiling throughout the production. And then there’s his uncanny ability to have humans move exactly like the animal or thing the dancer is portraying. Even without a costume there is no mistaking what the dancer is representing.
The Hard Nut is based on the book The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by ETA Hoffmann with music by Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky (The Nutcracker, Op. 71). Morris’ production is based on the work of Charles Burns so it has a cartoony quality. The time and place is 1970s US suburbia.
The Howard Gilman Opera House in the Peter Jay Sharp Building of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) is a gorgeous theater. I was sitting up in the left balcony and still had a great view.
The seat in front of me had an envelope taped to it. I wish I could tell you it contained an exciting surprise. The couple who arrived just before curtain opened it, read it, and put it away.
“Special gift for you!”
I decided to buy the ticket at the last minute and this production was ending that Sunday. I couldn’t go on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday and those were the only days that were having the pre-theater wine/beer and appetizers special and the intermission (spiked) hot chocolate and desserts special (all for an extra cost but not unreasonable). I would have indulged in the extras since the ticket price was so inexpensive ($25).
In the lobby was a chandelier with a dancing snowflake.
The orchestra began the overture at 7:40pm (the show had a 7:30pm start) and people were still coming in. At least it was during the overture. One of the other things I love about Morris’ productions is that he doesn’t consider gender when casting a role and not all of his dancers have what we think of as dancers’ bodies. The curtain opens and three children are watching TV. Marie (Lauren Grant), a girl about to be a teenager; Fritz (June Omura), a young boy who looks like a demonic Alfalfa; and Louise (Lesley Garrison), a teenage girl who wants to be grown-up right now. There’s a wall with a door and Marie wants to peek in to see the preparations for her parents’ Christmas party but she is thwarted by the housekeeper (Kraig Patterson in a wonderful comedic role). The wall goes up and we see their living room with a big tree and presents under it and a white sofa. Dr. Stahlbaum (Mark Morris) and Mrs. Stahlbaum (John Heginbotham) are still running around preparing for the party and enjoying a cocktail before the guests arrive. The party guests (Chelsea Acree, Sam Black, Rita Donahue, Domingo Estrada Jr, Shawn Gannon, Laurel Lynch, Dallas McMurray, Noah Vinson, Michelle Yard) arrive alone or as couples and each is dressed more fabulously than the one before in what was the height of fashion in the 1970s – platform shoes, bell bottoms, and loud polyester shirts and pants. Dr. Stahlbaum puts the yule log on the TV. As the night goes on, Louise tries to sneak a drink and get it on with one of the party guests who has been trying to get it on with several of the female guests. Fritz is being a pain in the ass. Guests are dancing and then hook up with their own partners or with someone else’s. Dr. Stahlbaum tries to distract them with carol singing. There is so much action going on that I’d have to see the dance two or three more times to catch what everyone is doing. If I’m watching one couple dancing, then I’m missing another couple fighting. The guests dance the polka, hokey-pokey, hesitation, stroll, bump, and waltz. There’s a Soul Train line with the guests dancing and humping each other.
The presents are given to the children and they unwrap each gift and then throw it aside as they’re given a new gift. Drosselmeier (Billy Smith) arrives with two gifts he’s made – a life size Barbie Doll (Stacy Martorana) and Robot (Durell R Comedy). Both the Robot and the Barbie Doll moves are mechanical and lifelike. Drosselmeier gives the children a Nutcracker and Fritz breaks it, which upsets Marie. It’s fixed with a handkerchief and she lovingly puts it back into its box. The guests leave and everyone goes to bed while the housekeeper cleans up.
Marie can’t sleep and she comes downstairs to check on the Nutcracker. She’s frightened by rats. At first large remote controlled rats with red eyes run all over the stage but then everything becomes life size and giant rat soldiers (Janelle Barry, Kara Chan, Elise Drew León, Katie Weir Miller, Wendy Reinert, Nicole Sabella) led by the Rat King (Utafui Takemura) take over the living room. This is where Morris’ choreography starts to get to me. I know they’re dancers but they really move like rats and I’m really frightened/disgusted. Life size GI Joe soldiers (Durrell R Comedy, John Eirich, Brian Lawson, Brandon Randolph, Nicholas Wagner) led by the Nutcracker (Aaron Loux) battle the rats and win. All the ‘real’ scenery has been replaced with cartoon versions – an oversized cartoon drawing of the tree, etc. The Changers (Derek Crescenti, Brandon Rudolph, Weaver Rhodes) help with the scenery and clothing changes. Drosselmeier dances a beautiful pas de deux with the Nutcracker, which is basically his younger self. Marie falls unconscious and is carried over and tucked in on the sofa by the Nutcracker.
The Snow (Janelle Barry, Sam Black, Kara Chan, Durell R Comedy, Rita Donahue, John Eirich Domingo Estrada Jr, Lesley Garrison, Brian Lawson, Elise Drew León, Laurel Lynch, Stacy Martorana, Dallas McMurray, Katie Weir Miller, Brandon Randolph, Wendy Reinert, Weaver Rhodes, Nicole Sabella, Utafumi Takemura, Noah Vinson, Nicholas Wagner, Michelle Yard) was the highlight of the evening for me. This “Waltz of the Snowflakes” is like real snow – the dancers move exactly as snow would move if it were human. The dancers are wearing caps that look like soft serve ice cream, silver tutus, and short sleeveless shirts. Everyone has a handful of snow and keeps tossing it into the air, which has a magical effect. Small groups of dancers come in and then another. Then the groups become larger. They move amongst themselves like snow being blown by the wind. The groups become larger as it becomes a blizzard. At one point I was looking at all the snow on the floor and was thinking that someone was going to slide and fall on it and just then a dancer slipped on the snow and fell on her/his ass. The entire dance is so beautifully done.
Drosselmeier walks through the blizzard and it’s intermission. When the curtain opens again, Marie has a fever and Drosselmeier tells her a story. A King (Mark Morris) and Queen (John Heginbotham) have a beautiful baby girl. The Rat Queen (Utafumi Takemura) is jealous and the Nurse is left (Kraig Patterson) to guard the baby. While the Nurse sleeps, the Rat Queen makes Princess Pirlipat (Lesley Garrison) ugly. As she grows up, she has a pig’s nose. The Rat Queen tells the King and Queen that their daughter will be beautiful again if a young man cracks the Krakatuk (hard nut) with his teeth and steps backwards seven times. The King orders Drosselmeier to find the Krakatuk and he travels around the world for 15 years. In each place he encounters dancers – Spain (Domingo Estrada Jr, Michelle Yard); Arabia (Durell R Comedy, Laurel Lynch, Stacy Martorana, Brandon Rudolph, Nicholas Wagner); China (Janelle Barry, Kara Chan, John Eirich); Russia (Chelsea Acree, Sam Black, Rita Donahue, Elise Drew León, Dallas McMurray, Wendy Reinert); and France (Brian Lawson, Katie Weir Miller, Nicole Sabella, Noah Vinson). It turns out the hard nut was at home. The Princess watches as suitors (Durell R Comedy, John Eirich) attempt to crack the hard nut with their teeth and instead end up needing the services of the Dentist (Shawn Gannon). Drosselmeier’s nephew (Aaron Loux) succeeds and steps back seven times stepping on the Rat Queen and killing her (in a prolonged funny death scene). The Princess becomes beautiful and she rejects the nephew because he’s starting to become ugly – like a nutcracker.
Marie stops the story and offers her love to the Nutcracker/nephew/young Drosselmeier. Mrs. Stahlbaum dances with the flowers (Chelsea Acree, Sam Black, Kara Chan, Rita Donahue, Domingo Estrada Jr, Brian Lawson, Laurel Lynch, Stacy Martorana, Dallas McMurray, Katie Weir Miller, Andrew Rhodes, Nicole Sabella, Noah Vinson, Nicholas Wagner) acknowledging her daughter’s new maturity. The flowers are wearing cabbage caps and dresses where the skirts open up like petals. The combination of the cabbage caps looking like swim caps and the arms up in the air made it look like the flowers were doing synchronized swimming. The young Drosselmeier and Marie dance together and celebrate their love. They walk up stage together.
Fritz and Louise are watching TV when suddenly their sister and young Drosselmeier are on the screen. She’s coquettish and then they kiss. The two children are shooed off to bed and the credits roll on the TV.
When Morris came out for his bow, he was out of costume and in his customary sweater, pants, and scarf. He blew some snow on the dancers and then threw some at the dancers. For their final bow, each of the dancers did his/her own thing.
Music Director Colin Fowler conducted the MMDG Music Ensemble beautifully. I’d forgotten that there are voices for “The Snowflake Waltz” and missed hearing The Hard Nut Singers but their chorus director is Elise Gaugert and Heather Curran is assistant chorus director. Bios for the musicians are here and list of The Hard Nut Singers is here. Scenic design was by Adrianne Lobel, costume design by Martin Pakledinaz, and lighting design by James F Ingalls. Bios for the dancers in the company are here. Other bios can be found here.
I definitely want to make this a yearly tradition for myself.
These photos are from the MMDG site from the 2015 production:
By Carene Lydia Lopez