Christmas with Mark Morris and Alvin Ailey

By Rachel Straus

Nostalgia is the main event in most Nutcrackers.  But in the original 1892 “Nutcracker” by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, the subject—nostalgia for one’s lost childhood—did little for the pre-Freudian audience. The libretto came from the 1816 novella by E. T. A. Hoffman. In it a girl’s favorite Christmas toy (the Nutcracker) comes alive, defeats an evil Mouse King in battle, and whisks her away to a magical kingdom of toys. This plot wasn’t received enthusiastically by Russian audiences (primarily composed of the Tsar’s retinue), who were interested in getting their ballerina divertissements on. And so the child-centric ballet faded from the repertoire.

In the mid 20th century more popular “Nutcracker” productions developed, with the understanding that parents were sending their middle class daughters to ballet class. “Wouldn’t it be nice to see Lauren in a ‘Nutcracker,’ dear?” The rest is history. Most of these “Nutcracker” ballets were made in America, during a time when culture still meant Europe. These versions referenced Victoriana or German volk and its concomitant bourgeois charms. In Act I everyone behaves beautifully. Consequently, the social interactions between the party guests and the perfectly dressed children have always looked stilted. We live in a culture which championed Doctor Spock. That is why Mark Morris’s 1991 version—called “The Hard Nut”—is a brilliant piece of theater. It traffics in social behaviors that we now refer to as the “me” generation. They are as familiar to us as the Big Mac is to many of our mouths.

On December 19 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, “The Hard Nut” had its last performance of the season. After 19 years in repertoire, it has never looked better. It is pitch perfect in its nostalgic waxing for—and satirizing of—suburbia, the sexual revolution, the Twist and the Hustle. (The Victorian waltz is nowhere to be found.) American nostalgia, Morris brilliantly shows, has little to do with Europe or Russia. Our collective past is memorialized through bell-bottoms, big hair, and the Oprah-esque acknowledgement that all families have “issues”. In the “Hard Nut,” memories of Christmas past include fake trees, the Yule log (blazing on TV), getting useless gifts, drinking spiked eggnog, and warding off lecherous maneuvers of drunken family friends. It also includes a nod to America’s role in slavery through the character of the black Nurse/Maid. Kraig Patterson plays this role brilliantly. Auntie Maim in black pointe shoes? Check.   

Using a truncated version of Tchaikovsky’s score (performed by the 48-member MMDG Music Ensemble under Robert Cole’s baton), the Morris Christmas ballet is a wonder for its visualization of the music. In the beginning of the Act II, the male-female ensemble leaps into the air as the cymbals crash. They are Snow. They sport headgear designed by Martin Pakledinaz that renders them into Dairy Queen soft serve cones. Every one is in a tutu. It’s hard to tell gender. From their hands they throw flakes of powder. As their leaping increases, the snow sprays resemble fireworks bursting in air. It’s delightful.

No prima ballerinas are in “Hard Nut.” The star of the show is the costumes and the set design by cartoonist Charles Burns. In the magic kingdom of Act II, Burns created four gigantic portals, each one slighter smaller than the next, to frame the dance action on stage. The effect is a bit like Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” especially when a huge bulls eye is lowered on the backdrop and it begins to spin. While Pakledinaz’s costumes are over the top (the Mouse King is Elvis; the Arabian dancers are covered from head to toe according the principles of hijab), Burns’ set is pared down and in black and white. When the giant Christmas tree appears, it moves into the space like a docking Art Deco style ocean liner. Act I may look like 1960s suburbia, but Act II definitely references 1920s glamour, a time in American culture where everything sped up, including the dances.

What is most miraculous about Morris’s “Hard Nut” is how loving it feels. While the choreographer’s recent “Romeo and Juliet” (2007) fell flat (perhaps because Morris’s stayed true to the plot and choreographed male-female dances), in “Hard Nut” he completely dispenses with dancing along gender lines. John Heginbotham dances the role of Mrs. Stahlbaum/the Queen across from Mark Morris who plays “her” husband. The first major pas de deux of the evening happens between two men: William Smith III (Drosselmeyer) and Heginbotham. In the finale, the heterosexual pas de deux between David Levanthal (Nutcracker) and Lauren Grant (Marie) also departs from convention. Other dancers lift them. Not once does Levanthal pick Grant up: ballet;s symbolic act for courtly love. Instead their love for each other is displayed in the last moments in the most obvious way: They kiss and kiss and kiss. Levanthal and Grant are married. From my vantage point, they appeared very happily married.


On December 18 at City Center, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater held their 21st performance of their annual New York season. The program featured “Love Stories” (2004), “Suite Otis,” (1972), and “Revelations” (1960). The matinee performance began with a historical film in celebration of Ailey’s masterwork, now in its 50th year in repertoire. The show was striking for two reasons. One, the newest crop of company dancers was featured. They include Daniel Harder, Demetia Hopkins, Megan Jakel, Yannick Lebrun, Michael Francis McBride, Samuel Lee Roberts, and Jermaine Terry. All of these dancers joined the company in the past two years. They are technically brilliant. I look forward to seeing them develop in their roles.

The other striking aspect of the show involved watching Vernard J. Gilmore in “Suite Otis” and “Revelations.” Gilmore joined the company in 1997. This year he has come into his own as an expressive, confident, charming, athletic, musical mover. In “Otis,” choreographed by George W. Faison, Gilmore embodied the alternatively loving-fighting suitor with a credibility that made me forget I was watching theater. There is no greater pleasure than seeing a dancer slowly transform from being proficient to being masterful. Gilmore has made the leap in his 13-year tenure with the company. What a lovely gift for the audience.

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