“The Hard Nut”
Mark Morris Dance Group
Howard Gilman Opera House
Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York
December 16, 2015
by Tom Phillips
copyright 2015 by Tom Phillips
Americans take their “Nutcrackers” way too seriously, Mark Morris seems to tell us in his campy Christmas spectacular, "The Hard Nut.” In many contemporary productions, the story is dark sexual symbolism in a world of repression and romance. Played for laughs, it’s a casual coming-of-age, in a world where sex is just part of growing up. That world is American suburbia in the 70’s, and for all its vulgarity, it’s much more familiar and friendly than the gentrified, stiff-necked Germany where the original is set.
A scene from "The Hard Nut": John Heginbotham as Mrs. Stahlbaum. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.
The 70’s were that lost decade when the hippie movement died, but hair continued to sprout from the heads, faces, armpits and open shirt-fronts of America. It’s all on display in the Act One party scene: afro wigs and pompadours, mustaches and sideburns, set off with too-tight pants and glittery jackets, short skirts and polka-dot pants suits. The host is Mark Morris himself, as a fussy Dr. Stahlbaum in a hideous jacket. But the focus is on the children, who start out staring at the TV. Father comes along and switches the channel to the Yule Log special, and the party is underway – an American Christmas with too many gifts, too much booze, and guests on their worst behavior. Much of the dancing consists of humping and grinding, at first surreptitious, but as the alcohol takes effect, front and center.
It’s up to Marie to redeem this mess, and she does it beautifully, with the aid of a nearly mechanical Nutcracker. Aaron Loux comes to life as Drosselmeier’s nephew like a toy out of the box – coaxed into manhood in a flowing pas de deux with his uncle. He’s a boy toy, and his function is to plant a first kiss on the lips of Marie, which he does repeatedly and rapturously in the climactic pas de deux of Act Two. Lauren Grant as Marie responds with her own rapture – not mechanical at all, but entirely human, a frizzy-haired little girl becoming a teenager in love, a passage out of life itself.
Morris’s show doesn’t need a sugar plum fairy to sublimate the message of pubescent girlhood. Instead we have a fertility goddess in Mrs. Stahlbaum, who blesses her daughter’s maturity with a rapturous Waltz of the Flowers, under a huge still-life of a purple orchid. Mrs. S. is dewily danced by John Heginbotham, one of many cross-cast lovers in this festival of fecundity.
It’s also dizzying in the fecundity its costumes and effects. Here the familiar transformations become abstract, as the set grows from a living room to a dream-space enclosed by circles of light. The rats at first are mechanical toys, with red lights for eyes, crawling creepily across the floor. Later they become full-sized, fairy-tale villains who take away a child’s beauty until a hero comes to save her. Act Two takes off into a subplot of E.T.A Hoffman’s story – sending Drosselmeier around the world in search of a mysterious hard nut, like Puck in a Midsummer Night’s Dream. This provides occasions for the funny national dances – a torero and a bull, an Arabian in a hijab, whirling Russians and mincing Parisians – under a giant map of the world.
The nut is cracked, the girl is kissed, the entire cast does something like 32 fouettes, and the house erupts at the curtain. After a failed flirtation with ABT, BAM has found a "Nutcracker" worthy to take up residence in the world’s hippest borough. “The Hard Nut” is 25 years old this Christmas, and it’s been all over the map. Now it’s home in Brooklyn, and it should run forever in the Gilman Opera House, where Tchaikovsky's masterpiece has never sounded more vivid.
Colin Fowler conducted the MMDG Music Ensemble, plus a choir of angels from the singing program at the Mark Morris Dance Center.
Copyright 2015 by Tom Phillips