The Mark Morris Dance Group at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Wednesday, December 15.
The tone of The Hard Nut, Mark Morris’s idiosyncratic take on The Nutcracker, is hard to pin down. It’s definitely satiric—tweaking E.T.A. Hoffman’s story, the 1960s setting into which he’s transposed it, and the conventions of ballet itself—but it’s never caustic, and at times, it’s genuinely affecting, albeit in an offbeat sort of way. When the snowflakes, for example, made their appearance—with men and women alike dressed in silly caps, crop tops, and super-short, heavily ruffed tutus, flinging white confetti in sync with the music—I could only giggle along with everyone else in the audience. But as “Waltz of the Snowflakes” continued, giggles melted into happy sighs. The ballet is still irreverent and cheeky, but it becomes wondrous and beautiful too.
Created in 1991, The Hard Nut is immediately recognizable as Morris: charmingly playful, casually gender-bending, musically sensitive, with an eye for the broader view of the stage. Morris’s company fills the cast, meaning that adult professionals play the roles of Marie and her siblings. Even the most sentimental could hardly miss the usual child dancers, though, with Lauren Grant playing Marie. Small and fine-boned, she looks the part and proves to be not only a talented dancer (a given) but also a truly gifted actor. Over the course of the ballet, her Marie matures without losing her innocence, a transformation Grant handles with delicacy and self-possession.
On the way, though, there’s a lot of absurdity. Hoffman’s original tale (which Hard Nut follows more closely than most Nutcracker scenarios) is bizarre, with strange digressions and Freudian undertones. The opening party scene (in which the toymaker Drosselmeier brings the Nutcracker as a gift to Marie) is familiar enough and, as presented by Morris, far more entertaining than usual, a feast of bawdy sixties kitsch. Then there’s the midnight battle between the rats and the toys, led by the Nutcracker, with Marie saving the day, but from there, Hard Nut starts veering into relatively unfamiliar territory. Rather than setting off on the traditional journey to the Land of Sweets, Marie develops a fever and Drosselmeier returns to tell her about Princess Pirlipat, cursed by the Rat Queen until the spell is broken by a young man who can crack a mythical hard nut with a single bite.
Here the famous divertissement character dances of the ballet’s second act—“Chocolate (Spanish dance),” “Coffee (Arabian dance),” etc.—are not sweets showcases but stops along Drosselmeier’s worldwide quest to find the elusive hard nut. The dances themselves are much the same, though, set to Tchaikovsky’s spirited, colorful music and adorned with extravagant costumes. Ethnic stereotypes are all but inevitable in the divertissement, but Morris indulges in giddy, shamelessly over-the-top stereotyping of Spain, Russia, and France as well as Arabia and China, which softens the sometimes bitter aftertaste of the Eastern clichés. The result is ridiculous but undeniably cute. How can a bouncing, hyperactive sextet of dancers dressed like matryoshka dolls, complete with painted-on rosy cheeks and bulbous silhouettes, fail to inspire a smile?
But as fun as those little dances inevitably are, Morris’s real strengths, to my eye, lie in his group numbers, such as the waltzes of the Snowflakes (Act I) and Flowers (Act II). The Waltz of the Flowers has special importance in Hard Nut because it celebrates Marie’s flowering, her arrival onto the cusp of adulthood. Marie’s tremulous mother (played by John Heginbotham, who finds remarkably subtle shades in what easily could have turned into a drag caricature) leads the flowers in the waltz, at once earthy and ethereal, rejecting grandeur but stumbling upon grace even its gracelessness.
In a particularly brilliant move, even the climactic pas de deux that follows the Waltz of the Flowers is less a dance of deux than of many. Marie and her prince dance together as equals, not as a prima ballerina set on display by her cavalier, and representatives from every group that has passed across the stage—party guests and toy soldiers, snowflakes and flowers, Spanish toreadors and snooty Frenchmen—dance with them, celebrating their love. In effect, the central pair is the prima ballerina and the corps is the cavalier, lifting Marie and the Nutcracker prince, presenting them to the audience and to each other, and setting them at their best. I haven’t always been convinced by Morris’s reworkings of the classical pas de deux, but the treatment in The Hard Nut is lovely. Like a wedding in which the community blesses the couple, the Hard Nut pas de deux feels spiritual as well as romantic. At once a beginning and a benediction, it is timeless and transcendent, rising to Tchaikovsky’s soaringly Romantic music in a way that few Nutcrackers do.