BWW Review: THE HARD NUT is Kitschy, Campy and Exquisite
The deliciously delightful, creative and clever choreographer Mark Morris has likely made the most unabashedly American Nutcracker ever with his ingenious, irreverent and irreplaceable gem - The Hard Nut. Perhaps because of being so close to home, it is also one of the most hilarious and relatable to U.S. audiences (and adored abroad as well) though he never drops the shimmering Christmas ball on the dances - which are exquisite and innovative while still retaining their sense of theatricality and play. It's a ballet with the aesthetics of pop art superstar Andy Warhol and the glamorous yet campy vintage stylings of the drag artist Lypsinka and the en travesti yet on pointe charm of Les Ballets de Trockadero de Monte Carlo. The seasonal sensation just unwrapped another gift of an engagement at BAM - It was absent last year due to whisking the snowflakes away to the West Coast - giving New Yorkers and visitors alike something to smile about before they attend their own family gatherings and feasts.
But while the show is all-American visually, it was such an ambitious undertaking at the time of its creation that it first debuted in Europe, at Brussels' Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in January 1991 as the last Mark Morris' pieces during his stint as the Director of Dance at the National Opera House of Belgium. Following that he returned to the United States. One can only wonder if this Christmas tribute made him homesick.
The Hard Nut is set in the swinging 1970s with outrageous Broadway-level production values from sets by Adrianne Lobel, costumes by Martin Pakledinaz and lighting by James F. Ingalls all inspired by the work of cartoonist Charles Burns. But other than the time and place, the ballet remains utterly faithful both to Tchaikovsky's complete score and E.T.A. Hoffmann's bizarre tale that inspired the music and ballets - so respectful in fact that the Mark Morris Dance Group version features a story-within-a-story that's not usually included in the balletic renditions of the fairytale: "The Story of the Hard Nut," which further explains the title. In this subplot that opens Act 2, the baby Princess Pirlipat is turned into a creature evocative of Miss Piggy by the Mouse Queen who is avenging the loss of her Mouse King in Act 1, and its takes a bit of a Princess and the Pea or Cinderella with the glass slipper kind of challenge to break the spell by cracking a hard nut. The only one capable is Drosselmeier's nephew - also under an enchantment -- who succeeds in breaking the curse but is rejected by the Princess. No matter, for Marie (the young lady Drosselmeier favors) proclaims her love and breaks the spell on him. These scenarios are meant to explain how Drosselmeier's nephew was turned into the Nutcracker and why the uncle and toymaker had to search the world for a way to break the spell cast upon the Princess, but really it just sets the scene for a more congruent through line rather than disjointed divertissements. It also opens up a larger world of interpretations of which Mark Morris takes full advantage. The only major alteration is that the Sugar Plum Fairy is omitted...oh well.
Even before the performers are in view the audience knows that they are in for an auditory treat, thanks to the 53-piece live orchestra, the MMDG Music Ensemble and The Hard Nut Singers conducted by Colin Fowler interpreting Tchaikovsky's classic masterpiece with zest and fervor. Though there are no kids present on stage (as can be a predominant feature in many regional Nutcrackers) the angelic voices of the children's chorus uplift the score to celestial realms.
The curtain opens to reveal three siblings watching TV - the mini-skirted, libidinous teenager Louise (Lesley Garrison who doubles as the piggy Princess), the mischievous brother Fritz (one of the gender-bending turns played by June Omura) and sweet Marie (Lauren Grant, who after 22 years of performing the role, still looks like a preteen). Soon the Housekeeper (the astonishingly comedic and balletic Brandon Randolph, returning to reprise another extraordinary en travesti role all en pointe) and the parents -- veteran Mark Morris Dance group performer John Heginbotham in another non-conformist twist as Mrs. Stahlbaum/Queen and Mark Morris himself reprising the roles of Dr. Stahlbaum/King appear and announce the party's underway. The first act of The Nutcracker can feel tedious at times with its archaic pageantry but The Hard Nut feels a lot like a chaotic family and friends Christmas party which is hilarious to experience on the outside, particularly when the guests are all in disco attire. There's jealousy, flirtations, libations and a plentitude of dancing and gifts galore (of a Robot played by Spencer Ramirez and Barbie Doll danced by Elisa Clark) compliments of the dashing rake with an eye patch, Drosselmeier (a wickedly wonderful Billy Smith) who conveys the confidence of Johnny Depp. Once the kiddies are ready to retire - or forced to - the ruby-eyed rats come out to play (how very New York) and a squabble between the rodents and G.I. Joe Soldiers ensues. All's well when the pests are exterminated, but then Drosselmeier must be off for his global mission, but not before the most iconic and adored show stopping scene -- Snow - where male and female dancers in skirts and crop tops leap about and sprinkle, dust and blast tiny particles of faux snow held in their hands. The result is akin to a glitter shower and its utter magic.
Of course anyone familiar with most versions of The Nutcracker will have an inkling of what to expect in Act 2, but Mark Morris' expressions of global excursions are something entirely different and much more updated. The Spanish dance is a sultry flamenco; the Arabian number is the most unique and inventive with a veiled high society woman with clumsy tendencies surrounded by a doting entourage in full hijab falling at her jingling anklets whenever she made a single gesture; Chinese Tea -- which has taken a lot of heat and reached a boiling point due to the insensitive at best, offensive at worst representations in the Balanchine version, gets a modern twist and enables its performers to express themselves to the exuberant music en pointe (rather than with pointed fingers); the Russian number has babushkas drenched in folds of colorful fabrics and French Marzipan features a couple of wealthy Parisian women and their valets on a shopping trip. This may not seem the best use of Drosselmeier's time in his epic search but nevertheless is a fun romp for everyone else.
Once Marie gives her declaration of love, she and the Nutcracker (a darling Aaron Loux) enjoy a precious Pas de Deux where they pause between pirouettes to furiously kiss, after her mother acknowledges her maturity and grants the blessing for her daughter's blossoming in the divinely danced Waltz of the Flowers - a glorious garden-themed bookend to the Snow Dance.
Though there are many alternative versions and adaptations to the original, Mark Morris Dance Group still manages to make most others pale in comparison with their innovative, expressive, inclusive and utterly creative vision of kitschy, campy grandeur that's as American as can be.
Photos: Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and Mark Morris Dance Group present The Hard Nut based on the book by E.T.A. Hoffmann, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Mark Morris Dance Group featuring the MMDG Music Ensemble and The Hard Nut Singers. Music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker, Op. 71 conducted by Colin Fowler with choreography by Mark Morris PHOTO CREDIT - Richard Termine