Watching a performance of “The Hard Nut” is comparable to biting into an unknown piece of holiday candy. It’s familiar, it looks great, and it is undeniably sweet. Yet, sometimes there’s surprises in store.
Zellerbach Hall was treated to a showing of “The Hard Nut” on Friday. This twist on the traditional “The Nutcracker” was a delight to both new fans of dance and those who see this Christmas ballet annually. It was a winning combination — the talent of the dancers from the Mark Morris Dance Group paired with a comedic take on a holiday classic produced an evening guaranteed to be a delicious piece of chocolate — not one of those gross ones with coconut or anything.
The reserved opening of “The Hard Nut” didn’t divulge the spectacles to follow. The ballet started, entirely in black and white, with three children attentively watching a vintage television set to one side of the stage.
The personalities of the three children were quickly established, with little Marie (Lauren Grant) promptly cast as the evening’s plucky protagonist. In the background, the family’s housekeeper (Brandon Randolph) appeared briefly, framed in the rectangle of a door — the first peek the audience had at the more expansive set still to come. Eventually, the walls of the television room are pulled back to reveal a living room set, complete with its very own Christmas tree and primed for a lavish Christmas Eve party.
Perhaps the most exciting scene to watch unfold was the party itself. Characters took the stage with bustling excitement; endless party patrons entered in perfectly timed motions, each guest arriving in an increasingly dazzling costume. The choreography of the party scene truly captured the feeling of being at a crowded Christmas Eve fete; one didn’t know where to look in such a stimulating environment. Whether it was watching Louise (Lesley Garrison), the older sister, overtly flirt with each party guest or laughing while a few houseguests do a rendition of the “Hokey Pokey” in the corner, there was always something impressive, and often comical, filling each moment.
Indeed, the audience spent most of the performance deciding whether they wanted to laugh or applaud. This sentiment can be applied to most of “The Hard Nut” — as the ballet itself is a combination of impeccable dancing and physical comedy with the “blizzard” scene articulating this zeitgeist the clearest.
The dancing in this scene was remarkable as the entire ensemble got an opportunity to take the stage with breathing-taking leaps, synchronous twirls and a delicate sprinkling of “snow” with every motion. Yet the audience couldn’t help giggle when they noticed the hairy legs of a male dancer clad in a tutu and a silver sports bra. Nonetheless, the gender of the dancers didn’t stand in the way of the cohesion between the ensemble, which moved with the effortless grace of real falling snow.
While the group numbers were stunning in their own right, the ballet’s most touching moment occurred in the simple dance between Drosselmeier (Billy Smith) and the personification of his alter-ego, the Nutcracker (Aaron Loux) himself. This intimate dance between the two alter egos was one of the more subdued performances of the evening.
The choreography painted both dancers in equal prominence and gave both Loux and Smith equal opportunities to shine — the pair circled around each other in center stage and supported each other, quite literally, with impressive lifts. As the narrative predictably resorted back to heteronormative standards, it was undeniably heartwarming and seemingly novel to watch such an intimate and well-rendered exchange between two talented dancers.
The ballet bookended nicely with a return to its opening scene — the two older children sat cross legged once again in front of the television set. However, to the surprise of both the siblings and the audience, the images of Marie and the Nutcracker flit on screen before the credits of the ballet itself begin to roll down. It was a comedic moment of reflection, and this ending scene was a blend between the serious and playful and, as such, served as a quality encapsulation of the ballet overall.
“The Hard Nut” runs through Dec. 24 at Zellerbach Hall.
Contact Sarah Alford at [email protected].
A previous version of this article stated that the choreography gave both Loux and Randolph equal opportunities to shine. In fact, the author was referring to Loux and Smith.