Mark Morris and The Hard Nut

Photo by Susana Millman

Mark Morris has said, at as early as 14 or 15 years old, he wanted to compose a dance to the entire score of Tchaikovsky’s Casse Noisette, Op. 71 (The Nutcracker).   Twenty years later, as the director of dance at the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels, Belgium, with his company, the Mark Morris Dance Group as the resident dancers, he began to do just that.  And twenty years further on the timeline, we have the opportunity to see this stunning production as the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s final Next Wave Festival 2010 presentation.  It is one of Morris’s greatest achievements, a rare and special feat made all the more spectacular by the grand scale and the loving approach to the classic score.  What could be a satirical “take” on The Nutcracker in the hands of others is rather played out as a beautiful, bold, sensitive, nuanced, and totally earnest coming-of-age story – this IS the Nutcracker.   And, in a further treat for audiences, we get to see the man himself performing, as the central father figure, Dr. Stahlbaum – perhaps our only chance to see him on the stage today, especially disappearing into a role rather unlike his own grandiose being, the choreographer Mark Morris.

Morris has always said that the reason he makes up shows is so he has something he enjoys watching – in effect, he is simply building the show for his own entertainment, and then sharing with us –  and how lucky we are.  Is there a better “Waltz of the Snowflakes” in all the numerous productions?  I’m not so sure.  Morris is genius in this respect – rather than beautifully and evenly falling, as the snow does in Mr. Balanchine’s production (there is not the possibility for drama, then, no rhythmic punch though the effect is lasting and serene) – the snow comes up from the dancers’ fists, in bursts and clumps and sprays.  It seems, as one gets lost in the flurry, that these snowflakes, dressed uniformly in tutus and Soft-Serve headgear, are playing – it’s the way you would throw snow yourself – sure it’s fun watching the snow come down, but isn’t it even more so to run freely through the blanketed white, carousing and romping and wheeling.  It’s magical.

But this is of course not to say that there is anything less than extreme sophistication about this choreography.  One of the things often said about Morris’s work is that it feels like you could just run down the aisle onto the stage and join the action – there’s a democracy of the body, and a welcoming communal feel that keep people holding themselves back from charging forth and leaping into the throng.  This couldn’t be less true, however – and the choreography for the Snowflakes is a case in point.  Amidst your laughter and awe at the precise beauty of it all, you may or may not miss how incredibly complex, musical, structural and architectural the whole thing is.  Take away the snow and the costumes, and you’d still have a perfectly masterful dance.

Perhaps I’m revealing too much about my own psychology, but the inner child in me looks forward, with not a negligible amount of glee, to the moment when it is again acceptable each year to start listening to Christmas music, with Tchaikovsky being one of my favorites.  The Nutcracker score, though it inspires groans and eye rolls in plenty of circles, many with years-long associations to lackluster annual childhood productions, has nothing of this kind of effect on me.  It is sheer magic, and evocatively gorgeous.  I just can’t help myself.  And this, too, is what makes Morris’s production a gem.  I can’t believe it when I see it, but he’s able to give the entire first half hour of music – the party scene, the gift giving, the parents and children – a total 70s vibe that works as though Tchaikovsky meant it this way.  And though he’s using popular dance forms, and very open personal vernacular, Morris infuses each moment, each joke, with a musical reinforcement that makes it impossible not to appreciate.

This is not parody of the Nutcracker – this isn’t making fun at all, except perhaps at ourselves or our parents – the whole thing plays out almost like the pivotal key party in Rick Moody’s Ice Storm – everyone gets drunk and ribald and the whole thing nearly collapses into chaos.  It’s rather an expert staging of a groovy party scene, whether real to Morris or imagined, and all of it layered over Tchaikovsky’s lush score so expertly that there is no possibility of anomaly – the staging and music coexist with an elegance and refinement that renders it extraordinary.  The production design, which does an excellent job making this possible, is based on the work of sequential artist Charles Burns.

The coming-of-age aspect is what makes the show so powerful and emotionally relevant.  In other, former productions of the Nutcracker, the second act deals only with the magical land of the sweets, and Marie (danced impeccably by Lauren Grant) stays a child throughout – she doesn’t have a moment of recognition, and therefore neither can we.  However, in Morris’s approach, Marie begins an innocent girl, but something about what her Uncle Drosselmeier (William Smith III) gives her, in his Nutcracker gift, pushes her over the brink of girlhood and into the adult realm.  And her mother is wonderfully complicit in the development.  The Waltz of the Flowers begins with Mrs. Stahlbaum (the exquisite and hilarious John Heginbotham) gesturing offstage to the young heroine who has just exited, with open hand:  “My daughter…” she tells us, then turns around and makes the same gesture to a nearly vulgar depiction of a giant hanging flower – “…is about to be a woman.”  The floating set piece is vivid in its entendre, yet it ushers in the genius Waltz of the Flowers, at once an innocent Busby Berkeleyian show number, and also Mrs. Stahlbaum’s reckoning of the naive past with the erotic future.   In telling us this bit of story Mrs. Stahlbaum knows where Marie is headed, while the chorus of dancers (another completely serious and deeply beautiful dance of its own right) enjoy the bliss of color and youth.  Here they are dressed in Brussels sprouts caps and floral dress (throughout, the costumes by Martin Pakledinaz are truly sensational), each with a bright pink or orange or purple underskirting.

Later in the show, Marie and her heroic Nutcracker prince (the splendid David Leventhal) dance to the Sugar Plum Fairy music.  There are shudders in the strings, separated by a few beats, repeated several times again but separated by not so much – he kisses her hand on each, and it’s as though this zing of vibration is actually felt in her heart, or, perhaps with Morris, even lower.  And there’s a joke at the end – but it’s also serious and we all know the feeling – she eventually sticks out the other hand: she likes the way this feels, adulthood, love, and she wants more.  She knows it.  She’s changed, she’s alive in a new way, and there is a poignancy, a loss of childhood, but also an important gain of the kind of love we can’t ever get from our parents, far from the world of fairy tales and dreams and the like.  The Hard Nut gets to the heart of this matter of growing up, but in doing so along the way also renders us all children again, or childlike, in our awe. This dichotomy of feeling is what I love so much – there is always a push and a pull, a loss and a gain, but in the yearning for growth and understanding, there are many significant lessons learned – the things we most need are actually the closest to us, we just need that moment of clarity, the trial and error that brings us to eventual recognition.  The journey is paramount to the conclusion, and I afterwards coexist in a happy state of nostalgia and hope.

The Hard Nut

BAM Howard Gilman Opera House
30 Lafayette Avenue
Dec 15—18, 2010, 7:30pm
Dec 19, 2010, 3pm
Mark Morris Dance Group
Featuring the MMDG Music Ensemble with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus
Conducted by Robert Cole
Choreography by Mark Morris

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