Mark Morris Dance Group
The Mark Morris Dance Group perform The Hard Nut at Cal Performances Dec. 14-23. Photo: Stephanie Berger
at Cal Performances Dec. 14-23. Photo: Stephanie Berger

Exploding onto the main stage at Zellerbach Hall like the Fourth of July wrapped in black, white, red and green packaging, Mark Morris’s The Hard Nut made its triumphant return to Berkeley.

A three-year hiatus extended the production’s every-other-year tradition with Cal Performances. The last time Bay Area audiences boogied to Act I’s Gallop or swooned during the Nutcracker Ballet-inspired spoof-fest’s breathtaking duets and glorious ensemble machinations was 2009.

Although little has changed in the elaborate, 20-year old production created in 1991 during Morris’ stint in Brussels as Director of Dance at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, audiences have. Expectations increase, rather than fall, when the economy slumps and the advent — some say onslaught — of technology raises the bar every time a production is remounted. The show’s big numbers (48 crew members backstage, 32 dancers, 20 pounds of confetti used in the snow scene) prove only that Morris wasn’t kidding when he said the production was not created to tour or to make money for the company.

Mark Morris Dance Group
Twenty pounds of confetti is used in The Hard Nut‘s snow scene. Photo: Stephanie Berger
‘s snow scene. Photo: Stephanie Berger

Happily, the opening night performance proved that the show’s enduring and endearing qualities remain intact; especially in its four pillars of perfection: the look, the sound, the choreography, and the dancing.

Fantastical black-and-white sets, crafted by Adrianne Lobel in comic book artist Charles Burns’ hip, retro-linear minimalist style, combine with dashing costume design by the late Martin Pakledinaz (proving Morris only works with the best in the business).

As Act I unfolds and young Maria returns to check on the gift she received at her parent’s Christmas Eve party, the Stahlbaum’s 1970-style home ramps up in scale and tone. Young Fritz’s G.I. Joe’s become life-sized sissy soldiers; a 20 foot-wide wall clock glides from the rafters, commando teams of snowflake-tossing dancers burst from the wings, carve through the space and leap into blackness with joyful, bare-bellied abandon.

It’s bold and beautiful and perfectly frames Morris’s royal-to-realistic-to-raunchy choreographic spectrum.

The Berkeley Symphony Orchestra and Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir, led by veteran conductors George Cleve and Robert Geary respectively, brought nuanced, powerful clarity to Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s grand score. After a few less-than-cohesive passages during the opening party scene in Act I, the BSO musicians grabbed a solid foothold and by the waltzing snow scene, all was sonic bliss. Morris has re-ordered the full score in its original form and adjusted tempi to avoid the sometimes lugubrious interpretations of other Nutcrackers. Set in this way, Tchaikovsky’s genius is undeniable.

Mark Morris
Mark Morris. Photo: Amber Star Merkens

Inevitably, the choreographer’s muscular, “rambitious” dancers—fleet animals combining rambunctious and ambitious movement that brings to mind the energy of a blizzard and the swift intentionality of a mountain lion—are spectacular.

If the smart-alecky bumps, grinds and pratfalls occasionally wear thin — my one complaint — it’s no fault of the dancers.

June Omura (Fritz) exudes “boy!” with every fiber of her being and Lauren Grant (Maria) must be genetically programmed to mature so convincingly from pre-teen to young adult in just two hours. Billy Smith (Drosselmeier) is superbly elegant, yet maintains his humanity with subtle gestures and clean technique.

As the Young Drosselmeier, Aaron Loux shines — and the light is brilliant. Sure, he has the romantic lead, but there’s no synopsis for matching his lush épaulement (movement of the arms and upper torso), supple extensions and solid grounding.

Importantly, attention-grabbing individuals are not the stars of The Hard Nut. The dances that resonate, and reverberate for days, are the glorious ensemble forays.

The snow scene’s masterful choreography is largely satisfying. LIke a full, kinetic meal, meaty steps dig into the soul and smokey, fruit-laced turns linger sweetly. Morris feeds the imagination. If standing ovations were customary in the midst of Act I, this scene would surely receive one.

Act II continues to surprise, with traditional ballet vocabulary comically inserted out of context. Multiple turns a la seconde, normally in the Cavalier’s male variation, are performed en masse. A tour jeté (a turning jump) is tossed off by long-time company member John Heginbotham, a spike-heeled Waltz of the Flowers trans-Queen.

Finally, and repeatedly, The Hard Nut cracks the mold with climactic music accompanying tender, often pedestrian encounters. Morris has created a timeless vessel — a tribute to Tchaikovsky, a showpiece for his own amazing ability to make audiences see the music and an endless playground for his remarkable dancers.

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