Tuesday, December 18, 2012

"The Hard Nut"

Mark Morris Dance Group
presented by Cal Performances
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
December 15th, 2012

Dance in December would not be complete without the “Nutcracker”, and Bay Area dance in December would not be complete without alternative “Nutcrackers”. They are everywhere and there is truly something for everyone. One of the best surrogates is Mark Morris Dance Group’s “The Hard Nut”, choreography by the great Mark Morris himself. Based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 book, “Nutcracker and the Mouseking”, Morris has injected his unique flair into the story of Marie and her Prince, carefully placing it in the swinging 1970s. With Adrianne Lobel’s set design, costumes by the late Martin Pakledinaz, and the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra under the direction of George Cleve, “The Hard Nut” is a delight for the senses.

Following Hoffmann’s narrative, Act I begins at the same place and time as most “Nutcracker” productions: Christmas Eve at the Stahlbaum home. With Morris’ retro concept, there were a few extra special (and humorous) touches. If not for Tchaikovsky’s familiar score, we could have easily been watching “The Monkees’ Christmas Special” or “A Very Scooby-Doo Holiday”. The guests eagerly joined in the evening’s festivities, dancing versions of ‘the hussle’ and ‘the cakewalk’ while sipping drinks from old school hi-ball glasses. As usual, the entertainment for the party guests was provided by life-sized dolls, though appropriately, ‘Droid’ and ‘Judy Jetson-style’ characters were substituted for the typical jester and nutcracker.

Photo: Stephanie Berger

Twenty-two women and men danced Act I’s finale: Morris’ inspired snow scene. Whipping around the stage in gorgeous architectural formations, the dancers threw handfuls of snow, corresponding perfectly to accented chords in the score. As found in most Morris ballets, he begins the action, movement and choreography off-stage in the wings, which leads to an unmatched continuity, consistency and flow. The series of canoned saut de basque turns deserve special mention as the Zellerbach stage was transformed into a rare combination of blizzard and fireworks. It was like a life-size snow globe.

Act II unveiled ‘The Hard Nut’ portion of the story, featuring the King (Mark Morris), the Queen (John Heginbotham) and Princess Pirlipat (Jenn Weddel), followed by the Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, Russian and French sequences. These latter divertissements were cleverly campy and choreographically sound: the hops on pointe in the Chinese variation a pleasant surprise. Morris’ take on the ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ combined his signature modern dance vocabulary with imaginative staging; another use of choreographic canon creating an actual ‘blooming’ sensation.     

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