The Hard Nut

Mark Morris cracks open his seasonal classic

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  • Photograph: Susana Millman

  • Photograph: Susana Millman

  • Photograph: Susana Millman

  • Photograph: Susana Millman

  • Photograph: Susana Millman

  • Photograph: Susana Millman

  • Photograph: Susana Millman

  • Photograph: Susana Millman

  • Photograph: Susana Millman

Photograph: Susana Millman

When Mark Morris was concluding his stint as the director of dance at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, he choreographed a sensation: The Hard Nut. Inspired by E.T.A. Hoffmann's dark tale, Tchaikovsky's complete score and the comic-book art of Charles Burns—who conceived the work along with Morris—the 1991 production is a rarity in New York. (The sets are enormous; it was made for an opera house, not for touring.) The first half includes a raucous party where there is no food, only cocktails, and a cast of characters imbued with spectacular detail. The Hard Nut is, in part, a fantasy in which '60s and '70s childhood memories come alive in the form of Barbies, G.I. Joes and Dairy Queen vanilla-swirl headpieces for unisex snowflakes. But Morris is as romantic as he is irreverent; when that hard nut is cracked, all that remains is love. It's a contrast that only he could pull off (and when he does, it just about kills you). Recently Morris and his longtime costume designer, Martin Pakledinaz, discussed the origins of the work, which will be performed at BAM starting Friday 10.

How did this whole thing start?
Mark Morris: I was trying to decide on a big new piece to do, and I was in conversation with some friends talking about doing one of the big Tchaikovsky dances, and it just turned into Nutcracker. I didn't know what a great score Sleeping Beauty was until the Kirov revival, when I finally heard the full score played well. That was my favorite show I ever saw, by the way. I had head the Nutcracker all the way through, which is very unusual. Most people don't. Very often things are cut or pruned or added—ridiculous extrapolations. So I was talking with Mr. Baryshnikov and Rob Besserer and I don't know who else, but really it wasn't, "Let's do a Christmas show." It was, "I want to do one of these big Tchaikovsky ballets," and it became The Nutcracker partly because I've been completely immunized against that music from having little bits of it injected into my dancing system for my whole life. And it's a great, great score. That's what happened.

When did you come into the picture?
Martin Pakledinaz: Later. We had just met a year and a half or two years before....
Morris: In Orphée.
Pakledinaz: At Orphe in Seattle!
Morris: Stephen Wadsworth directed. You'd already worked with him a bunch of times, right?
Pakledinaz: No. I think that was my first time with Stephen.
Morris: Shut up.

Pakledinaz: Ironically, I was brought into opera because I was a theater designer. Isn't that weird? Actually what happened, Stephen and Mark—it was hard to have two equal forces of talent like that. I would hang out quietly, and much to my surprise, he and his dancers liked me. I can say this now: I was aware of who Mark was but I hadn't seen his work, so it was all new to me. When we [first] did The Hard Nut, it was a really scary venture because it was also—now, I dream a lot, so if this doesn't ring true... [Laughs] But it was going to be your big farewell to the company.
Morris: What do you mean?
Pakledinaz: By the time we were doing The Hard Nut, you were looking back to the United States.
Morris: Oh, yes. It was meant to be the last thing in Brussels.
Pakledinaz: The Burns visual was so strong. And it was really tricky. We also knew that our role was to bring his work to life, so it was really interesting.
Morris: Which nobody ever does. You never do that kind of shit.
Pakledinaz: With the rats, he'd never drawn one, and I finally said, "I can design a rat, but I sort of need your visual, unless you want me just to do it," and that's the first time I think he actually drew a rat for us, which ended up on the poster.
Morris: I want to interject. Here's what happened: We were thinking of doing a Nutcracker. That's all. And my first thought was Edward Gorey, because I loved him. I adored him. He loved my work, but at that point he was a little too historical and a little too affiliated with New York City Ballet. He'd just done that Dracula. I loved his work. And then Barry [Alterman, the former general director of the Mark Morris Dance Group] and I, who were both comic-books readers to a certain extent, found Charles's Big Baby, and it was like, Wait a minute. We contacted [Burns], and he grew up in Seattle like I did, we're the same age basically—it was like, Wow—what a fabulous idea. I hired Marty and Adrianne [Lobel, scenic designer] and Jim [James F. Ingalls, lighting designer], and unlike most productions that I get to do—because it was Brussels and there was a big cash register in Brussels—we had production meetings periodically over a year or so in different cities in the world with most of us there. Sometimes one of us was missing, but we went through it with Charles and wrote the synopsis together. There was going to be a roast turkey presented and dropped on the floor. There were a whole bunch of things that we got rid of: There was going to be food. Originally the rat king was made of three people, because it's supposed to be seven [heads] in the story. It was always, as far as I can get, collaborative. The buck stops at a certain point, but we all had ideas.
Pakledinaz: Intensely collaborative. There was a big thing about whether the dancers should have extreme makeup or even masks. And Mark got quiet and said, "This is my company's goodbye to Brussels. I don't want to hide their faces."

Oh, that's gorgeous.
Morris: I said that? That's beautiful.
Pakledinaz: It was. And it was like, Boom. Okay, great. And can you imagine if it were masks?
Morris: It'd be as dead as everybody else's Nutcracker.
Pakledinaz: Now, now. [Laughs]
Morris: Hey, I'm not wearing glasses.
Pakledinaz: Damn you.
Morris: Dr. Stahlbaum had glasses because [original cast member] Barry wore glasses, and then Guillermo [Resto] wanted them. I will if you want, but I don't think I need them, because [Mrs. Stahlbaum] wears glasses. [Silence from Pakledinaz] Okay, whatever, we'll talk about it.

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