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

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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.