The Hard Nut Offers Timeless Beauty of Dance While Rebuking Old Traditions


During a season fraught with shopping and social appointments, a trip to theater for live holiday entertainment is often more obligation than joy. And yet we persist.

For those who can’t bear to sit through another Nutcracker but also can’t imagine a holiday season with it, Mark MorrisThe Hard Nut, returns to Zellerbach Theater in Berkeley for a two-week run through December 24.

While the inspiration may have come from the 1816 fairytale The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A Hoffman, Morris’ rendition is thoroughly modern. Set in an American living room in the 70’s, party guests dance the hokey-pokey, the bump, and even grab a move or two from Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Many elements follow the traditional Nutcracker ballet template: Drosselmeier brings Marie a nutcracker. Bratty brother Fritz breaks it. The house grows. Mice battle soldiers. Marie defeats the Rat King.

Even the second act, which deviates from the traditional ballet libretto with a fairytale within a fairytale as told by Drosselmeier to Marie, feels similar. The music is the same and we enjoy dances from Spain, Arabia, China, France.

But what’s really bold is not Morris’ choice to put a new spin on the old story but his choice to break out of the traditional norms that often make the Nutcracker a dated relic while preserving the timeless elements of the quest narrative: a gift, a battle, a challenge, and true love.

As a modern dance choreographer, Mark Morris’ vocabulary extends past the French terms of classical ballet and therefore

Snowflakes, men and women, all in the same skirted costume, all dancing with same choreography and here before us the feminine is strength and masculine is equally graceful—what emerges is the dance.

Of course, no artist creates within a vacuum, and scenery, costumes and exuberant dancing contribute in equal measure to the broad appeal of the Adrienne Lobel’s black-and-white scenic design, based on Charles Burns’ iconic comic book style, is sharp and clean, offering contrast to Martin Pakledinaz’s bright and bold costumes.

Brian Lawson is a delightfully spunky and annoying as Fritz. Lesley Garrison (older sister Louise, Princess Pirlipat) comes as close as she can to stealing every scene while still sharing the stage with her colleagues.

For those who miss the aesthetic lyricism of classical ballet, there is Billy Smith’s (Drosselmeier) arabesque and Aaron Loux’s (the Nutcracker Prince, Young Drosselmeier) double tours. Lauren Grant returns as the ever-graceful and charmingly youthful Marie. Her performance and technique achieve what every beautiful dancer should accomplish: transcend the confines of ballet and modern to allow the joy of dance to reach the audience.  

In a world that is increasingly challenging old norms, the Hard Nut is the best of everything: athletic dancers, breathtaking emotions and just plain good fun.

When Daddy Dances


I danced my last Nutcracker in 1996, but my husband is still performing, year after year, as the Sugarplum Fairy cavalier. He has known some of the ballet students since they were soldiers in the Battle Scene.

Every Saturday from September to December, my husband rehearses and coaches the girls he will dance with. As an extra bonus for me, he takes our children with him. Our daughter Chiara has been attending Nutcracker rehearsals since she was seven months old. She loves it. For the past three years she’s been right beside him onstage.

Her first Nutcracker as a spectator at just under two years old, however, was a little different. By the time she was a year and ten months, she was sitting through two-hour dress rehearsals without incident. So I thought nothing of taking her to an actual performance to see Daddy dance.

As soon as she saw him jete’ onstage at the beginning of the second act she yelled out, “Dadd-deeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!” Not in a “bravo” kind of voice, but with the voice you use to warn someone that they’re about to be hit by a bus. All the dancers onstage smiled a little harder. One of the candy canes suppressed a giggle.

When Matt made his first exit into the wings, Chiara burst into tears.


I think she thought he fell off the face of the earth.

“Where Daddy? Where Daddy?” she kept asking. I’d tell her: first there’s the Spanish variation, then Arabian, Chinese, Russian, Merlitons, Mother Ginger, Waltz of the Flowers, and then Daddy.

After the last flower waltzed away, the lights lowered and the soft music of the Sugarplum Fairy pas de deux began to twinkle.

“Dadd-deeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!” Chiara yelled when she saw her father escort the Sugarplum onto the stage.

“Shhhhhh. . .” from the row in front of us. They were the ushers.


An usher hissed at us again.

I scooped my daughter up in my arms made a hasty exit. With the secret toddler ninja wiggle that makes kids both slippery and brick-like, Chiara broke free and ran to the doors leading back into the theatre.

“Da-dddddddeeeeeee!!!!” She pounded her tiny fists on the door, doing her best Brando from Streetcar.

She was even more hysterical there in the foyer, so we went back in.

Even in the dark I could feel the ushers’ steel glares. Would we be asked to leave? It is a kid’s ballet, after all.

Chiara stopped sobbing, but she continued to call out from time to time. On stage my husband gracefully promenaded his lovely partner. He was beaming. He’s dancing for his little girl. Why should we leave?

Every time Chiara called for him, Matt and the Sugarplum smiled a little broader, sharing this inside joke with everyone else in the theatre who had seen our daughter at the front of the rehearsal studio next to the mirrors eating her morning snack and watching her Daddy dance.

Chiara is a fixture at these Saturday rehearsals in the ballet studio, but the real fixture is my husband. If you are a parent of a kid in this show, you know him. He entertained your daughter backstage when she was an angel in the prologue. He taught her how to do finger turns and supported lifts during pas de deux class. And if your kid is a boy, my husband taught him fart jokes. If you are remotely involved with your child’s pre-professional ballet career, you adore my husband. And you probably know Chiara as well.

So if a little girl crying for her daddy is ruining the show for you, maybe you should lighten up.

Which is more or less what I told those ushers.