By PAUL LASTER, DEC. 2016
Celebrating its 25th anniversary, Mark Morris Dance Group’s “The Hard Nut” is a visual delight. Turning the famed, 114-year-old Russian ballet “The Nutcracker” on its head, Morris utilizes the Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky score and the E.T.A. Hoffmann story; but the punk, sexy nature of Charles Burns’ stylish cartoons inspires his gender-bending, graphic-novel interpretation of the classic tale.
With a bit of the camp, raucous humor of the 1980s television show “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” which ended its run in 1991 (the year Morris’s rollicking ballet premiered), “The Hard Nut” features stark sets, colorful costumes, exaggerated hairdos, comical acting and—most importantly, since it is a dance piece—ingenious choreography.
In a 2007 documentary about the making of his production Morris reveals, “The music of ‘The Nutcracker’ was overly familiar to me and to all of my dancer friends. I wanted to go back to it and find out why it was so beautiful and so moving and why it drives you crazy if it gets stuck in your head. I wanted to purge myself of that connotation of the music, which is why I used the E.T.A Hoffmann story and every note of music, and why I tried to make—from the ground up—a fresh production of this piece.”
The choreographer’s first thought of a collaborator was the surrealist writer and illustrator Edward Gorey, who was still alive; but he soon realized that he wanted a collaborator of his generation, which lead him to the cartoons and graphic novels of Charles Burns. He asked Burns to design the zeitgeist of the dance, while turning to painter Adrienne Lobel to design the actual sets—based on Burns black-and-white view of the world—and costume designer Martin Pakledinaz to create a cheap-thrills kind of look for the clothes.
Highlights of the production include the whimsical Soul Train-style line dance with performers improvising at the Christmas Eve party that opens the show; the Waltz of the Snow Flakes, which has both men and women in tutus and crop tops crisscrossing the stage while releasing some 20 pounds of white, snow-like confetti; the worldly travelogue with stereotypical Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, French and Russian performers; and the Flower Dance, which has one of the female leads—played by a man—fronting a chorus of blossoming young loves.
Visually joyful and ripe with pop cultural references—ranging from life-size Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls to motorized rats with flashing eyes and a television broadcasting a Yule log and the closing credits—“The Hard Nut” dynamically brings the classic dance into the media age we now inhabit. WM
The 2016 production of “The Hard Nut” continues at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Howard Gilman Opera House through December 18.
Paul Laster is a writer, editor, curator, artist and lecturer. He’s a contributing editor at ArtAsiaPacific and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art and writer for Time Out New York, Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, Galerie Magazine, Sculpture, Art & Object, Cultured, Architectural Digest, Garage, Surface, Ocula, Observer, ArtPulse, Conceptual Fine Arts and Glasstire. He was the founding editor of Artkrush, started The Daily Beast’s art section, and was art editor of Russell Simmons’ OneWorld Magazine, as well as a curator at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, now MoMA PS1.
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