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Mark Morris Dance Group's 'The Hard Nut' a Spectacle for the Holidays

by Joanna G. Harris
December 16, 2017
Zellerbach Hall
Bancroft Way at Telegraph
(2430 Bancroft Ave.)
Berkeley, CA 94704
510.642.9988
Joanna G. Harris Author, Beyond Isadora: Bay Area Dancing, 1916-1965. Regent Press, Berkeley, CA, 2009. Contributor to reviews on culturevulture.net
Mark Morris' Holiday favorite “The Hard Nut” returned to Zellerbach Hall after a five year absence.

In it, Morris transformed the familiar old Russian "Nutcracker" story originally brought to America by Willam Christensen for the San Francisco Ballet in 1944 and to New York by George Balanchine in 1954, into a contemporary, joyous, and satirical spectacle. As in the original, there was sentiment and magic but also expert dancing including tough G.I. Joe's, gender bending snowflakes and go-go boots. Morris himself was 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 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 and who deformed the child’s face. The child can 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 pointe 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 was expert, but in addition to the wonderful characterizations of individual performers, the loudest applause went to the snowflakes. Twenty-two members of the company, men and women, in white tutus ran, leapt, hit the floor and continually threw snow on stage to the familiar waltz music hitting the accents with skilled leaps.

The Tchaikovsky’s score ("The Nutcracker," Op. 71, 1891-92) was 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 events included the various ‘country’ dances: Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, Russian and French. Each was marked with satirical aspects as Morris found 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.
Mark Morris Dance Group in Mark Morris' 'The Hard Nut.'

Mark Morris Dance Group in Mark Morris' "The Hard Nut."

Photo © & courtesy of Julieta Cervantes


Mark Morris Dance Group in Mark Morris' 'The Hard Nut.'

Mark Morris Dance Group in Mark Morris' "The Hard Nut."

Photo © & courtesy of Julieta Cervantes


Mark Morris Dance Group in Mark Morris' 'The Hard Nut.'

Mark Morris Dance Group in Mark Morris' "The Hard Nut."

Photo © & courtesy of Julieta Cervantes

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