Mass Appeal: Ailey’s Latest Dazzles, While Morris’s Nut Remains Hard to Crack

ALSO BACK, THOUGH after an absence of only eight years, is Mark Morris’ The Hard Nut, wowing them at BAM. I didn’t like it when it first turned up, and I don’t like it now. This is Morris as Bad Boy, attacking the pieties that The Nutcracker can evoke while dishing up some blunted satire of the social scene of the ’60s and the ’70s. Act I is set at a cocktail party, where the guests are boorish, the parents hapless and the kids greedy and aggressive. Ho-ho-ho! Everyone’s also disco-lecherous and gender-confused.

Morris himself is now performing the role of Dr. Stahlbaum, and as always he’s a superb actor-dancer. Kraig Patterson is still in his original role of the black housekeeper, perhaps even more subtle, fluent and female than before. June Omura is now young Fritz–naughty, frisky, irrepressible. (How can she be the mother of three?) But unless you’re patting yourself on the back for being superior to all these feckless people, the whole jokey thing is all too slick and easy.

What’s good in The Hard Nut are some big group passages–in particular the hectic finale of the “Snowflake” scene, with its exciting crescendo of dancers leaping across the stage, flinging handfuls of snow up into the air. It’s a show-stopper. (“Dewdrop,” on the other hand, is nothing but a bunch of wilted blooms in campy flower costumes, and John Heginbotham, as Mrs. Stahlbaum/Dewdrop, has nothing to do but move in a stately way among them, waving his hands–he does it with womanly grace, but it’s hardly what the music demands.) The second-act national dances (Spanish, Arabian, Russian) are witty takeoffs on what we’re used to and bored by. It’s fun when a bunch of G.I. Joe soldiers swarm in to battle the mice. The costumes, by Martin Pakledinaz, are colorful and amusing.

On the other hand, this is a Nutcracker with no feeling, no awe, no romance. Morris in his interviews is defensive about his use of Tchaikovsky’s great score, but the waste of some of its grandest moments is devastating: While in the Balanchine version, for good or ill imprinted on us all, the tree grows and grows–one of the most thrilling moments in ballet–Morris’ little Marie just sits on a sofa with her head in her hands. The climactic second-act pas de deux between the grown-up Marie and the young Drosselmeier is so generic, so thin, it’s tedious to watch. (There’s a whole lot of kissing, though, and Lauren Grant and David Leventhal do it well–nice to see, since we know that in real life they’re married.) Choreographing romantic love is not Morris’ strength. And clearly, children are not his thing, either–there’s an almost ghoulish relish to the moment in Act II when the Rat Queen gouges the face of baby Princess Pirlipat.

So why is The Hard Nut such a big hit? Maybe because it’s a comic alternative to the ultra-familiar Balanchine version–a humorous, cheerfully cynical comment on our times. Alas, for me it’s also a shallow response to the music of Tchaikovsky, to the original choreography of Ivanov and to their shared vision of beauty.  

rgottlieb@observer.com

Mass Appeal: Ailey’s Latest Dazzles, While Morris’s Nut Remains Hard to Crack