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Mark Morris Dance Group
'The Hard Nut'

Christmas With the Wacky Relatives

by Mary Ellen Hunt

December 20, 2003 -- Cal Performances, Berkeley, CA

At the heart of things, Mark Morris Dance Group’s “The Hard Nut” which just completed a West Coast run at Cal Performances to round out the Nutty fun this Christmas season, is really a family affair.

The production, which Morris created back in 1991 for the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, has taken on the sheen of a yearly tradition, albeit in the mold of "Christmas-dinner-with-your-wacky-Aunt-Ophelia-and-deranged-but-entertaining-cousins." It flits back and forth -- at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York for a season, then at Cal Performances in Berkeley for a season -- and when it's not in town, I miss it.

One of the things that makes this show, and in particular the first act, so good is that every player on stage, even those lumped into the group as "Party Guests," is an individual. They aren't just wearing some character's costume, they're being someone -- maybe even someone you think you've met. Regulars like General Director Barry Alterman bustling across the stage as Dr. Stahlbaum or Rob Besserer swooping in as Drosselmeier give me the giggles from remembered moments out of performances past as much as from what they're doing right then and there.

During the raucous Party Scene -- a notoriously slow-moving chunk of time in most "Nutcrackers" -- little moments of hilarity crop up wherever you look: Kraig Patterson as the maid teetering in and out of the scenes, but taking time for a quick swig off the drink cart, John Heginbotham (surely one of "The Hard Nut's" most elegant Mrs. Stahlbaums ever) gracefully sweeping around the room being the perfect hostess and adjusting small things just so, Mark Morris himself, as a drunken party guest, trailing a bit of toilet paper from his heel.

Even the Liechtenstein-esque set has its own impressive role to play. As the party ends and Marie (the bright-eyed Lauren Grant) comes looking for her Nutcracker, Adrianne Lobel's gargantuan sets make their own choreographed entrance, advancing upon Grant and her little pink bunny slippers with all the gravity that the Tchaikovsky score (played here by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra under Robert Cole) can muster.

By far, though, my favourite part of the whole ballet is the brilliantly frivolous and musically sharp Snow Scene. Of course at first glance, the sight of the barefoot dancers, men and women alike in Dairy Queen headpieces, discharging snowy handfuls with their jetes on the beat is enough to make a joke. But this would be a hard joke to sustain for nine minutes, and the piece wouldn't be even a quarter so funny if the dance weren't as well constructed and artful as it is. When at last we got to half-time, I felt somewhat limp, almost over-stimulated from all the laughter.

Drosselmeier's story in Act II -- which covers the travails of the rat-faced Princess Pirlipat and the search for the Hard Nut to cure her -- speeds along swiftly.  Perhaps it's that very decision to make the dance tell a solid story-line, rather than just serve up divertissements that makes the time pass so easily.

And Morris is the master of American kitsch. Watching the act unfold, I found my mind calling up images of everything from the curse of Carabosse in "The Sleeping Beauty" to Steve Martin belting out "Be a DENTIST!" in "Little Shop of Horrors." A highlight of the globe-trotting ventures, however, is the Arabian sequence --featuring Morris again, this time fluttering about the stage veiled and in a diaphanous, peek-a-boo thoub.

The act really seems to climax, though, with the goofball Waltz of the Flowers. The organically twining patterns of the fourteen pastel-clad, sepal-headed dancers (led here by the ineffably tasteful Mrs. Stahlbaum) had a lovely tendril-like swing to them, rather like a bouquet of tender sweet peas. But, as with the Snow Scene, it is a solidly constructed dance and any waving or vine-dangling comes delightfully right with the music. You could almost hear Morris rehearsing the dancers, calling out, "and droop-droop-DROOOOP ... and pistils-pistils-PISTILS!"

The central pas de deux, executed grandly by Lauren Grant and a very noble David Leventhal as her Nuctracker, brought back the crazy quilt of characters -- a snowflake beside the dentist, etc. -- for one last breathless scamper about the stage. And as I left, I was oddly refreshed, as if the pasty film of half a dozen "Nutcrackers" had been cleansed from my palate.

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