Encore Michigan

Mark Morris Dance more than cracks “The Hard Nut” at Detroit Opera Theatre

Review December 05, 2022 Marin Heinritz

DETROIT, Mich.–You may think you know The Nutcracker, but if you haven’t encountered Mark Morris Dance Group’s adaptation The Hard Nut, you might not realize how ripe this Christmas classic is for delightfully campy wonder. How magnificently the story works as a Mid Century Modern period piece complete with a Wizard of Oz style shift from black and white to technicolor.

That the dance of the toys should feature Ultraman ripping out Barbie’s arm and the toy soldiers who battle the mice are G.I. Joes. That the party scene could be most memorable as a hilarious swinging ‘60s soiree full of gender-bending, sexually-fluid innuendo, prominently featuring a bar cart full of rainbow cocktails, and a Soul Train style dance line with party dances including polka, hokey-pokey, hesitation, stroll, bump, and waltz, plus some drunken realness in the form of booty grinding. And that all the richly inventive narrative full of playfully-drawn characters is also the set up for an emotionally-complex whirlwind of gorgeous classical ballet reimagined, set to the full, original Tchaikovsky score played exquisitely by a live orchestra.

Music is king in this production, appropriately so as Mark Morris is known for his musicality, and in fact Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky receives top billing in the program’s artist bios. And the Detroit Opera Orchestra–conducted by Colin Fowler, Mark Morris Dance Group Music Director–made us hear and see this phenomenal score anew.

Though The Hard Nut premiered in 1991 and traditionalists have, at times, bristled at the liberties taken in terms of narrative and movement, the times have finally caught up to this stunning modern ballet complete with some of Mark Morris’s finest choreography. Indeed, this is a Nutcracker for the ages, one of the very rare versions true to the original score and story while also honoring Petipus and Balanchine, among others, in the rich history of this ballet.

Discovery and imagination as an homage to childhood are at the heart of E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Nutcracker and The Mouse King” and Morris’s The Hard Nut embodies this fully. Based on the works of celebrated illustrator Charles Burns, Adrianne Lobel’s sets bring to life both a Mid Century aesthetic as well as the wonderful dream-like journey of the tale. Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes, from the red and green bell bottoms and pantsuits of the party scene to the platter tutus and halter tops of the snowflakes to the headpieces and glorious flowing tutus of the waltz of the flowers and beyond are miraculously inventive. And James F. Ingalls’ lighting highlights both the exquisite choreography as well as the shifting moods, from joyful to sinister to romantic.

This is ultimately a romantic tale, though most Nutcrackers are not; however, Mica Bernas and Aaron Loux as Marie and the Nutcracker dance an extraordinary pas de deux through which they are equals: in lifts, in elegance, in love. The pauses and kisses as profound as the pirouettes and jêtés.

Perhaps even more moving is the pas de deux between Billy Smith as Drosselmeier and Aaron Loux as Young Drosselmeier as if through a mirror, the older man dances with his younger self. Every attitude, each grand jêté, the pirouettes en l’air are thrilling.

Christina Sahaida is an impish Fritz; Lesley Garrison is a laugh-out-loud funny and quirky Louise/Princess Pirlipat; Laurel Lynch is a fabulous Mrs. Stahlbaum/Queen, especially notable since this is historically a role reserved for a man in drag in the Pantomime tradition—the layers of irony and gender play are endlessly delicious here; Billy Smith is a wonderfully warm Drosselmeier, equally seductive and sinister; and Brandon Randolph is a phenomenal Housekeeper/Nurse, perhaps the largest character on this stage full of enormous characters, who dances en pointe and speaks with his eyes as well as his body, inviting the audience to erupt into laughter time and time again.

And yet the gorgeousness of the dancing is never outdone by the extraordinary acting. Character meets choreography at every turn, with colorful, playful interpretations of Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, Russian, and French vignettes, all delightful, all honoring the diversity of this company as well as the cultures to which these dances nod, drawing on Morris’s expertise in folk dances.

Everyone returns to the stage together in a truly grand finale as if to turn away from the notion of a prima and fully celebrate the complete experience of this ensemble performance.

And it’s the incomparable corps de ballet numbers, Flowers and Snow, inclusive of all bodies, all genders, that are most unforgettable. Here the snowflakes are barefoot, in platter tutus and crop tops with head pieces reminiscent of sparkly soft serve ice cream cones; they come in force diagonally across the stage then transition into gorgeous circular patterns, jumping and tossing fistfuls of snow all the while. 

Mark Morris’s The Hard Nut fully captures the true spirit of “The Nutcracker” and does so with terrific imagination, technique, style, and wicked cleverness. It speaks to the history of this gloriously well-worn tradition but makes it new again in the most delightful and memorable ways. 

Week of 9/25/2023

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