'The Hard Nut' at BAM
'The Hard Nut' at BAM © Richard Termine

Since George Balanchine inaugurated the tradition of the annual Christmas Nutcracker with his 1954 staging for New York City Ballet, the highly adaptable work has invariably reflected its era’s commercial values. The Russian émigré’s cosy domestic scene might have harked back to his turn-of-the-century childhood, but the prancing Snowflakes waving snowball pom-poms and the gilded porcelain angels zigzagging across the stage smacked of the 1950s: the showgirls, the hideous tchotchkes.

Mark Morris’s wildly entertaining Hard Nut, performed almost continuously since its 1991 premiere, certainly doesn’t stint on the modern and ridiculous: the Stahlbaum living room features a log fire burning on TV and a powdery white ersatz tree. Morris, however, hears this customary layering of old hat over new hair-do in Tchaikovsky’s alternations between complacency and yearning; he makes it essential, not accessory, to the story.

The hippest that the Stahlbaum party guests will ever get is a square’s idea of hip, but that doesn’t mean they’re tame. The first hint of riotousness is in the confusing cultural signposts. Costumier Martin Pakledinaz’s bell-bottoms and fully sprung afro wigs (with requisite comb) mix it up with duckbills and go-go boots. Moves straight outta Soul Train get down with the hokey-pokey.

Tchaikovsky injects regular twinkles and rumbles of danger into the party music before taking cover, just as consistently, under a blanket of calm. Balanchine responded to these oscillations with cinematic shifts in focus, from the goody two-shoes girls to the unruly boys or from the shuffling grandparents to the weird and wily godfather, Drosselmeyer. Morris lets the disturbances loose (as did the bright orchestra under Colin Fowler at BAM) to rampage round the room like the furious Stahlbaum boy Fritz (the inimitable, high-octane June Omura). On the run’s opening night, the party scene proved more anarchic and electric than ever.

Billy Smith and Aaron Loux in 'The Hard Nut'
Billy Smith and Aaron Loux in 'The Hard Nut' © Richard Termine

The lullaby does not cue the girls to rock their dolls to sleep, as in the Balanchine. Indeed, there is only one girl. Instead, the lilting ditty points to how the adults have drunk to woozy excess and will soon collapse on the sofa for a snooze or find someone to roll on the floor with or hump against a wall. A prelude to love. For Morris’s ballet is a love story, like its supernatural ETA Hoffmann source and unlike Balanchine’s paean to natural wonder and imported candy.

The Stahlbaum mother, whose romantic life has lapsed into a vegetative state, inducts her daughter into passion with a languid flower fantasia. The glam mice and their one-time foes, muscle-bound GI Joes, along with everyone else, support the girl on her own delirious course. Sustained to the last note, the budding love completes what the kitsch and the lust began. And it is very moving.


To December 23, bam.org. Balanchine’s ‘Nutcracker’ at Lincoln Center to December 30, nycballet.org

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