“Hard Nut” is Funny—But See “Nutcracker” First!
A huge map projection drops from above. On it, red lights flash to indicate the country of origin of the divertissements. In Mark Morris’s Hard Nut, it serves as just one of many reminders of how tough the holidays can be on children — No matter which way you turn, there it is: adult didacticism folded into each celebratory gesture!
The zigzag grey and white set, with it’s real live seventies-era TV, complete with rabbit ears aerial, recalls the impermeable surround of certain childhoods, where the ambient noise was found in the eternal badinage of sibling squabbles. In this Eichler-like home, we meet Marie (Lauren Grant), a strawberry blonde Shirley Temple of a darling, dressed in a polka dot top and white organza skirt trimmed in black. As she enters wearing a green satin skirt and velvet scoop neck top, Mrs. Stahlbaum (John Heginbotham), the children’s mother, adjusts her corset on the music. She switches the TV to “off,” and sends the kids out of room, whereupon on she begins a little mock ballet combination with lots of high fifth arms. She marks a pirouette instead of dancing it, and so begin the dance insider jokes. Morris enters as Dr. Stahlbaum. He wears a green jacket. He hands his basketball player-sized wife her drink. A Housekeeper/Nurse who is black (Kraig Patterson), places gifts under the Christmas tree. Morris switches the TV back on. He lights the tree, and both he and his wife stand transfixed, waiting in vain for it to grow (Could this be a metaphor for something else that’s not working between them?) They wait. They gesture, but nothing in their life grows. It’s as good a reason as any to pour another drink. Guests of different races, ages, and sexual orientations arrive. There are men in cheesy, garish jackets, one in a bell-bottomed body suit. A woman bourrées on tippy toes, or rather, tipsy toes. The boy, Fritz (June Omura), terrorizes his sister. A gay uncle lifts the offending boy. As couples dance to the Stravinsky Party Scene music, one adventuresome guest tries grabbing his partner’s rear. She responds with a fifties-era face slap delivered at the top of the music’s crescendo. Little kicks from the knee appoint the desfile choreography, which in Nutcracker is danced by children. All the guests have become very drunk and the little desfile march is given over to interpretive liberties, such as the men and women dancing The Stroll (Circa 1960) downstage á la American Bandstand, with a little disco hand gesture (Circa 1978) thrown in, and then the Funky Chicken (Circa 1963), with one couple staying true to classical ballet (Circa Louis XIV) as they shoot their arms through exaggerated port de bras.
The audience is roaring, and so is the fireplace that fills the TV screen. (I learned earlier in the week that one can buy fireplace videos for $10 and play them on a flat screen computer to reproduce Christmas in an otherwise minimalist apartment.)
Hard Nut’s Drosselmeier (Billy Smith) with eye patch, plaid pants, and red riding jacket, is a little more friendly than the ladies care for. Dr. Stahlbaum hands out gifts. Marie’s older sister (Jen Weddel) hates hers—a sweater. The kids tear into their presents, tossing each aside after only the briefest of inspections. Barbie Doll is danced by Chelsea Lynn Acree, and the R2D2-styled Robot, who is her distant if programmable partner, by Spencer Ramírez. Haven’t I seen that robot costume fabric in one of Morris’s more recent works?
Drosselmeier swivels his hips to accelerating music, as do Barbie, and Fritz. Everyone joins in. There are chorus line kicks. The Robot ends up with Barbie’s arm while the rest of her dances off somewhere. Marie is horrified. Couples waltz. The Housekeeper swiffers or swishes around the living room, hanging onto the edge of a cocktail cart for dear life, and helping herself to leftovers. The disco dude pushes guests out of his way. Drosselmeier makes The Nutcracker dance as the Housekeeper offers it nuts between swishes. The kids feed The Nutcracker nuts as they do a little jazz side step routine. The box of nuts suddenly snaps shut on a high note. Dr. Stahlbaum hugs Drosselmeier and spanks Fritz. Then he feels remorse, and Mrs. S mimes “Let’s sing carols!” Dr. S leads the guests in the singing. Marie waltzes off with The Nutcracker. Fritz runs through the crowd and incurs a scrotal tear when one sister grabs one of his extended legs and the other sister, the other leg. An interracial couple does The Bump (Circa 1973) to what in Nutcracker is called The Grandparents Dance. To the extent that there is one, the story here seems to touch on sexual repression—or expression—and alcohol consumption. A couple rolls around on the floor, and then “It’s time to go” music plays. Indeed, Marie has fallen asleep on Drosselmeier’s lap. Dr. Stahlbaum interrupts coitus between his older daughter and the disco dude.
Marie is in the living room alone with the tree. Fritz comes at her with a scepter, really a flashlight. A giant clock descends and strikes midnight. We see the clock’s gears. Rats are electronic with red light eyes. Marie bourrées around them as they fight. A scary face appears on the clockworks. Marie cowers in terror as couples walk by and the set changes to the giant Christmas tree with three big lights and an armchair. Marie tears around, flashing her light as she turns. Fritz climbs out of the set dressed as a soldier. More Rats emerge. Fritz shoots himself in the foot with a cap gun. Bang! G.I. Joe soldiers capture a slinky rat and knee it in the crotch. The Nutcracker marches out with his spear, leading the G.I. Joes in horse prances. The Rat King (Utafumi Takemura) fights The Nutcracker. The Nutcracker spears the Rat King.
Two dressers undress The Nutcracker (Aaron Loux). We see that he is a younger, if not better, version of Drosselmeier. He cambrés into a backbend and Drosselmeier dances the same steps on the other side of the scrim. They dance a pas de deux to the Grand Pas music from Nutcracker. They advance toward Marie. A sofa arrives and they lay her down on it, whirl her around and offstage. Male and female Snowflakes rush onto the stage in silver tutus and bra tops, pushing arms out from their sides and flicking snow off their hands. They toss fistfuls of snow into the air at the apex of their pas de chats. They all move like Mark Morris, in an exaggerated masked mystery woman sort of way.
Act II opens with Marie’s Dream music. The Housekeeper is seated next to Marie on a stool. She is leafing through a magazine and wiping her arm with a perfume ad page. She gives Marie, who is sick with a fever, a neck massage. Now as The Nurse, the Housekeeper pushes a pram onto the stage to the accompaniment of Mother Ginger music. Dr. and Mrs. S are now the Snow Queen and King, decked out royally in purple velvet. Mrs. S. shoves a giant baby bottle into the pram. The Nurse shoos Rats away from the pram. Mrs. S mimes that she’s had it up to here with motherhood, and is off to take a nap.
Dr. S pulls her away from the pram, but she finds herself ineluctably drawn to it. The Rat Queen enters doing en tournants. She climbs into the baby carriage as the Nurse naps and does something evil to the baby. Mrs. S screams when she sees the baby, who has been turned ugly by the Rat Queen’s spell. Dr. Stahlbaum, who is always drunk, is having difficulty following Drosselmeier’s miming of what has come to pass. Everyone blames everyone else. They appeal to the Big Nut in the sky as Drosselmeier’s knees quake with terror, or is it horror?
The map projection descends, lighting up the Iberian Peninsula. The Spanish dance begins, and follows the original choreography, except where the dancers aren’t skilled enough to do it, the maja (Michelle Yard) carrying a bit more weight than she can manage. She paws the ground like a bull and the Matador (Domingo Estrada, Jr.), heads for the border, as it were.
Arabian offers four Mark Morris replicants draped in Mediterranean blue. They rush in from stage left to stage right, and drop a gold-clad woman (Laurel Lynch) on the floor. After she recovers her faculties, she talks a blue streak to Drosselmeier, as if he were a customer in her coffee shop. She is petulant because he doesn’t respond, and when the four men in blue ignore her also, she shrugs and walks offstage, while the men whirl like dervishes.
Chinese is like the Chinese divertissement in Nutcrackers everywhere, except pared down and with chopsticks in the dancers’ hair.
For its “Wow!” factor, the Russian divertissement depends on men performing what are referred to as “tricks” in ballet—virtuosic high jumps and stick-straight turns that do not stop. Since that level of virtuosity goes missing in the Mark Morris Dance Group, the dancers—six women—Russian Babushkas, are dressed in Polish-joke wedding dresses, meaning many ruffles and layers in every imaginable color. They neither turn nor jump. Getting a balancé or two out of them is about as good as it gets, but the humor of what’s missing delivers its own kind of punch.
French is perhaps the funniest and best danced of the divertissements.
Women in pencil skirt sheaths, one wearing a Coty Girl-style wide-brimmed hat, and the other carrying a hatbox, mince along on demi-pointe, as if returning from a shopping spree on the Champs Elysées. Their partners are black-haired, mustachioed men in fuchsia and black print silk smoking jackets, one carrying a whip, which he cracks on the beat, and the other carrying what we presume is a freshly-baked baguette. They are Jennifer Jones, Maile Okamura, Spencer Ramírez, and Noah Vinson, and they dance the humor expertly. If L’Histoire d’O were made into a ballet, this would be it.
Drosselmeier dances with his younger self, and Marie and her ugly sister appear. Suitors arrive to court the ugly girl (Wait, which ballet is this a parody of, anyway?) and finally the young Drosselmeier comes along with a nut, which she eats, and the spell is broken, and she becomes beautiful just like her sainted mother.
Flowers wearing petal-layered costumes in primary colors, designed by the late Martin Pakledinaz, dance in faultlessly lovely lines until they wilt, and then they dance some more to remind you that yes, this is a pleasure to watch, but it does go on and on. Mrs. Stahlbaum is the Sugar Plum Fairy, a role she does not seem suited for at all. The coryphée flowers use their heads comically to over-indicate the direction the corps line will take. Then they do the equivalent of a stadium wave. There are prolonged calisthenics by the flowers, and the Snow Pas music ushers in the finale with everyone lifting everyone else.
You must see Hard Nut at least once before you die, but first make sure you’ve seen (or danced, if you are a dancer) The Nutcracker several times, so that the parody’s humor is not lost on you.
Toba Singer, author of “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), was Senior Program Director of the Art and Music Center of the San Francisco Public Library and its dance selector until her retirement in 2010. Raised in The Bronx, she graduated from New York City’s School of Performing Arts with a major in Drama, the University of Massachusetts with a BA in History; and the University of Maryland with an MLS. Since high school, Singer has been actively engaged in a broad range of pro-labor, social, and political campaigns. She has lived, worked, organized and written in Baltimore, Boston, The Bronx, Cambridge, Charleston, West Virginia, Jersey City, Richmond, Virginia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., working in steel mills, chemical refineries, garment shops and as an airlines worker; also editing, teaching and as an office worker. Singer has contributed articles to the “Charleston Gazette,” “San Francisco Chronicle,” “Dance Magazine,” “Dance Europe,” “City Paper,” “Provincetown Advocate,” “Voice of Dance,” CriticalDance.com, “InDance,” and “Dance Source Houston.”
Singer returned to the studio to study ballet after a 25-year absence, and in 2001, was invited to become a founding member of the board of Robert Moses’ KIN dance company. Singer studied ballet with Svetlana Afanasieva, Nina Anderson, Perry Brunson, Richard Gibson, Zory Karah, Celine Keller, Charles McGraw, Francoise Martinet, Augusta Moore, E. Virginia Williams, and Kahz Zmuda; and Modern Dance with Cora Cahan, Jane Dudley, Nancy Lang, Donald McKayle, Gertrude Shurr, and Zenaide Trigg. Her son James Gotesky dances with Houston Ballet. Singer lives in Oakland, California, with her husband Jim Gotesky.