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Mark Morris Dance Group

"The Hard Nut"

by Cecly Placenti

December 10, 2010 -- Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York City, NY

Christmas is in the air. It can be heard at Starbucks, in shopping malls, dentist’s
offices, and while strolling along Fifth Avenue, in the ubiquitous strains of
Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker.” The music is so ingrained in the seasonal routine it can
become mere background noise amid the holiday hubbub. New York City alone has so
many different “Nutcracker” dances for audiences to choose from that the saturation
often breeds indifference. “Oh yeah, ‘Nutcracker,’ been there…” Not like this you
haven’t.

Mark Morris’ “The Hard Nut” will blow the cobwebs off the classic favorite you
think you know and offer witty, campy, zany entertainment for even the most
seasoned “Nutcracker” fan. From the minute the curtain rises on a comic-book style
1970’s living room, where Fritz and Louise are glued in front of a huge tv set, audiences
are treated to a spectacular scene where every set piece, costume choice, gesture and step
fit together to provide non-stop giggles. The first act party includes an amusing cast of
70’s stereotypes parading about in various stages of drunken and disorderly conduct. In
Morris’ version, the party scene is full of active, rigorous dancing, not the calm, ordered
court dances seen in many traditional “Nutcrackers.” Playing with typical gender roles,
Morris cast the maid and the mother as men while the young Fritz is played by a woman.
Men and women both play snowflakes at the end of the first act, as well as flowers in the
second. Tchaikovsky’s big, gorgeous score is adhered to in its entirety, a very important
distinction of this production.

Morris’ storyline actually comes from E.T.A. Hoffman’s version where Drosselmeier
is ordered on a worldwide search for a magic nut that will transform Princess Pirlipat
from ugly (her face has been chewed by the Rat Queen and she has a pig snout for a
nose) to beautiful. The global search provides reason for the various national character
dances seen in Act II, familiar but imbued with the stylized, self-consciously artificial
and extravagant humor resplendent in this production.

Charming and delightfully funny from the first, “The Hard Nut” also has moments
of beautiful, engaging dancing. There is just the right amount of mime, and the
often deliberately awkward movements are a refreshing and appropriate twist. The
most “dancey” dancing of the production is, fittingly, between Marie and the young
Drosselmeier, full of love, intimacy and sweetness. But the highlight of the production
came in the finale of Act I- the “Waltz of the Snowflakes.” A dizzyingly grand
ensemble number, outlined by sharp, white pine stripe edges of set that suggested
the chill of a winter night, Snow climaxed in a grand and playful display of powerful
dancing. Wearing frozen-custard-swirl like headwear, half tops and short, gathered
tutus, the cast of 22 men and women turned the stark stage into a winter wonderland.
Spontaneous “Oooh’s,” “Aaah’s” and giggles erupted from the audience like popcorn
kernels as the section built from duets to kaleidoscope configurations of leaping dancers

tossing handfuls of snow. Tchaikovsky’s trilling flutes and strings rose and grew as the
stage lights reflected off the confetti-like snow, making it shimmer gold and silver against
the black background. The growing push and pull of the dancers coming and going in
groups of varying sizes, their entrances and exits timed perfectly with the building score,
created a swirl of leaping dancers and jubilantly tossed snow. The visual effect was giddy
and triumphant.

The “Waltz of the Flowers,” another classic favorite, was transformed with Morris’
insouciant humor. Dressed in stunning vibrant fabrics, 14 dancers slouch and lope across
the stage, morphing into patterns cliché in every classical ballet production you’ve ever
seen. Suddenly, seven dancers lie down on their backs and perform a half-somersault so
that their brief-covered backsides are indifferently greeting the audience. This image is
made all the more hilarious when one remembers they are supposed to be flowers!

All in all, Morris’ production is not to be missed. With its Barbie and G.I. Joe action
figures come to life, robotized rats, and sexually explicit shenanigans, “The Hard Nut”
will keep you laughing for the better part of two hours and change the way you view this
holiday classic forever.

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