'Hard Nut' a holiday chestnut, joyously cracked and spiced

RISQUE JETE: Amber Star Merkens and Noah Vinson in
RISQUE JETE: Amber Star Merkens and Noah Vinson in "The Hard Nut."
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By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 13, 2010

NEW YORK - Christmas lays thick upon Manhattan, and if the effect is charming in some spots, in others there's an uneasy weight. In busy midtown, the Salvation Army bell-ringers aren't just ringing bells; they're blasting disco carols from amps alongside their little red pots. Even the tonier Upper East Side smells of desperation - pause before a sidewalk display of boots and a saleswoman thrusts open her door to hawk the slashed prices inside. All the eye contact, the direct appeals: It can feel as if the city is asking for more than you've got.

But at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where Mark Morris's "The Hard Nut" has returned for the first time in eight years, there's something approaching a miracle on view. Wonder of wonders, the choreographed extravaganza is set to the music of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker." But this isn't the upright Victorian costume-drama we could all describe in our sleep. Morris's take on the timeworn Christmas tale, performed by the Mark Morris Dance Group as part of its year-long 30th anniversary celebration, is as raucous as it is visionary.

The first act is a tipsy kinkathon set in 1970s suburbia - white aluminum tree, big TV set, a hostess who pops a pill before facing her guests. The battle scene pits butch but easily frazzled G.I. Joe dolls against leggy rats with the suggestive hips of salsa dancers at the Copacabana. The second act roils with affectionately witty international caricatures, like the foursome of dancers representing France who swan on to the perky flutes of the Mirliton dance. (This is a part for sweet shepherdesses in the traditional ballet.) One gent holds a baguette, the other a whip.

But "The Hard Nut" doesn't stop at cleverness and humor. By the work's effortlessly poetic end, all that energy - the jacked-up sensuality, the global-village pastiche - is resolved in as honest and unsentimental a picture of love as you're likely to find in the theater.

What feels so authentic about "The Hard Nut" is that, unlike the typical Hallmark-card "Nutcracker" production, this one reflects the character of the season as most of us harried Americans experience it. Morris includes the crass - boozy party guests, spoiled kids - as well as the tender. Its retro-surreal look is based on the tilted perspective of comic book artist Charles Burns, the D.C.-born creator of such teen-horror graphic novels as "Black Hole" and "Blood Club." Morris's vision isn't nearly so dark, but Burns's imprint is clear in the stark, arch setting, where the cocktail cart is the main feature of the Stahlbaum family kitschmas party.

I've never seen a funnier full-length dance work, and the laughs bubble up throughout. Friday, BAM's opera house buzzed with the vibe of a comedy club. But it's a double pleasure: Morris embeds a transfixing story of bravery and human goodness into the comedy.

It's all the more remarkable for the fact that the modern-dance choreographer created it back in 1991, when he was not the standard-bearer of American dance that he is today. His company was in residence at Belgium's Theatre de la Monnaie and had access to state-funded deep pockets - a full orchestra, set and costume shop, rehearsal space. Thus the lavishness of "The Hard Nut" - and the difficulty in performing it nowadays.

Its costumes and wigs require a dozen dressers; the sets are heavily stage-crew-intensive. "Most companies design their 'Nutcracker' to make money," said one of Morris's associates to me on Friday. "We designed ours to lose money." Morris created it not for its ticket-selling appeal but for the reason that drives most of his works: He loves the music.

In this work, he marries the full Tchaikovsky score with the complete E.T.A. Hoffmann story. You're seeing only a fragment of it in most ballet company versions, but Morris goes further. Of course, Marie (as his heroine is called, in keeping with the Hoffmann) receives the nutcracker doll from her "family friend" Drosselmeier. Of course, her brother Fritz breaks the doll. And in Marie's dream, her devotion transforms it into a prince. After all that, Drosselmeier tells Marie a story-within-a-story about a hero's quest to find a magic nut, the hard nut of the title, that will restore beauty to a princess who is under a rat's evil spell.

Back to the first act: In Morris's sure hands, the sweeping emotionalism of this 19th-century score is an uncanny fit for the Stahlbaums' white vinyl living room, where disarray reigns. The housekeeper (danced in incomparable drag by Kraig Patterson) is still hurriedly stashing gifts under the tree as guests swagger in, garishly and gorgeously Christmas-clad (costumes by Martin Pakledinaz), with sideburns to match their velvet bell-bottoms. Marie (simply and clearly portrayed by Lauren Grant) is an earnest child in a ruffly pink dress; she's oblivious to the go-go sluttishness of her older sister (Julie Worden), who tries to teach her to bump and grind.

Drosselmeier's gifts of life-size mechanical dolls (a robot and a Barbie, in thigh-high silver boots) take a brutal twist: At the end of their dance, the robot tears Barbie's arm off. Foreshadowing? Later, when Fritz breaks Marie's nutcracker, Dr. Stahlbaum (danced by Morris) chases after him with great fanfare. Meanwhile, Marie is quietly taking care of things, using her hair ribbon to bandage the doll, kissing it and laying it in a cradle.

That sense of maternal warmth has primacy here, and Morris traces Marie's tenderness back to her own mother. Mrs. Stahlbaum (danced en travesti by John Heginbotham) is a bit of a basket case - she's the pill-popper - but she returns as the star of the waltz of the flowers, the golden beacon to which the whole production has been aiming. She is the focus of all its suggestive symbolism (fertility, nature's urges, the cycle of life). And, being danced by a man, she is an aspect of the feminine inside us all, a nurturing stripe that keeps a community together.

Along with that warmth, community is a central good, as it is in so many of Morris's works. The whole cast - the one-armed Barbie, the rats, the swinging party guests - returns to sweep Marie and her newfound love, Drosselmeier's nephew (David Leventhal), into the romance we've been waiting for. Quite literally: They guide the two into each other's arms, swirling them around and then leaving, returning and nudging them closer together, then whisking tactfully into the wings again.

In Grant and Leventhal's coda of stirring simplicity and subtlety, you see why the party at the outset was so gaudy and over-the-top, why the whole thing was so hilariously stylized. Up to the end, that is. Suddenly, their physical expression is real, honest and unvarnished; all the dance steps have been peeled away as Marie and her man walk upstage into their future. The ending is so uplifting, so transcendently beautiful, that it feels like it ought to be America's national dance.

Great theater can exist where we least expect it, even in something so familiar as the music that floods our ears at this time of year - and even in the holiday that engulfs us. In an imperfect family that represents the worst but also the best of American life, Morris points us to its sustaining consolations. In a season, a nation and a world of contradictions, "The Hard Nut" reminds us of the sweeter fruits.

The Hard Nut performed by the Mark Morris Dance Group, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Howard Gilman Opera House. Choreography by Mark Morris, music by Tchaikovsky, costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, set design by Adrianne Lobel, lighting by James F. Ingalls. Production based on the work of Charles Burns and the book by E.T.A. Hoffmann, "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King." Through Dec. 19. Tickets $25-$70. Appropriate for ages 4 and up. 718-636-4100, or visit

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