Another nut entirely

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday December 18, 2012
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The first great "alternative Nutcracker, " The Hard Nut, choreographed by Mark Morris, has just opened its annual run in Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall, with George Cleve conducting a glorious-sounding orchestra. It opened last Friday night, the day of the Newtown massacre. Perhaps the most significant thing that can be said about it was that many people reported at intermission that they had stopped feeling heartsick, numb and stupefied by the day's events. It's the glory of The Hard Nut to find a contemporary way of understanding the values of home and hearth, really valuing them, and of seeing new life arise in midwinter, while giving plenty of rein to anarchic impulses.

"Alternative Nutcrackers ": maybe the first was Duke Ellington's version, which was of course "just the music," but it did the job of jazzing it up and making Nutcracker something a modern person with her wits about her could enjoy without embarrassment. Morris' Hard Nut (1991) came at the end of his controversial career as chief dancemaker at the opera house in Brussels, Belgium. It was hardly provocative compared with the ballets he'd already shocked the Belgians with, but it was solidly made, and over time, as new performers take over the roles, it's only become more apparent that the choreography is classic, rivaled only by Balanchine's version of the Victorian tale.

The very first "alternative Nutcracker " was the Dance Brigade's Revolutionary Nutcracker Sweetie, a trenchant satire of Reagan-era greed that opened in Oakland in 1987, with a lesbian Drosselmeyer and the maids for the heroines. Deservedly, it got lots of national attention during its decade-long run, but though it had some great ideas, it lacked the Hard Nut's fully-professional production values. First-rate choreography, first-rate dancers throughout, first-rate musicians in the pit, first-rate designers, all add up to make it a grand spectacle (and cost $600,000 in 1991), including wonderful costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, to whose memory this year's performances are dedicated. There are more stagehands behind the scenes than dancers onstage. A gazillion costume/wig/make-up changes keep the performers as busy being dressed and redressed backstage as they are busy dancing and acting onstage.

There's a Christmas party scene, Mama (John Heginbotham) and Papa (Morris himself, wonderful in the role), a little-girl heroine (Lauren Grant) whose brother (June Omura) breaks her toys �" and it was almost impossible not to think of Newtown when Fritz pulled out his cap-gun and terrorized the party when he did not get his way. Marie then has a nightmare that everything has gotten out of hand, the tree has grown, the mice are out to get her, which all becomes very complicated in this version. Her uncle has to travel the world to find the prince who can crack the hard nut and revive her.

Company members of Mark Morris Dance Group perform The Hard Nut at Cal Performances.

Photo: Susana Millman

Morris has used the entire score, and his setting of the great set-pieces are out-of-this-world fantastic: the Snow scene is unquestionably unrivalled by anyone else's setting. Not even Balanchine's meets Tchaikovsky's rhythmic challenges as well as Morris does, setting imaginative chains of steps and explosions of snowballs to the blizzardy cross-currents and shifting accents in the music. Such mastery of counterpoint! And no other setting of the grand pas de deux better realizes the idea of romantic love than Morris' does. "She is my lady, he is my love," their dance proclaims, and every creature that's appeared in the ballet so far shows up to back him up as he presents himself and all he has to her service.

Outstanding in small parts were Spencer Ramirez as a snippy French couturier, Brian Lawson as the second suitor in the dream-sequence, and Domingo Estrada, Jr., as a drunken party guest in the first act (dancing Morris' original role). As ever, Kraig Patterson as the drag-queen nanny in black pointe shoes is beyond praise for warm-hearted generosity in performance. Billy Smith was amazingly good as Drosselmeyer, and Aaron Loux as the Nutcracker Prince �" both are roles I'd thought could not be replaced. But that's how you can tell it's a classic �" the roles are so great, the whole thing is so great, it all continues to inspire young performers to bring their own gifts to it. Forever renewing itself, like the world itself.