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The Hard Nut

Mark Morris cracks open his seasonal classic

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Photograph: Susana Millman
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Photograph: Susana Millman
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Photograph: Susana Millman
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Photograph: Susana Millman
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Photograph: Susana Millman
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Photograph: Susana Millman
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Photograph: Susana Millman
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Photograph: Susana Millman
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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.

Did you have a say in the dancers' makeup?
Pakledinaz: Yes. I looked at the drawings and then I tried to include elements like strong eyebrows. We made sure that lips would be apparent. When you work under someone's style, you actually have to know so much about it that you ultimately go, Well, if I was Charles Burns, what would I do? And yet, for Mark, keeping it fluid. For instance [in the Waltz of the Flowers], the stamens, the leaves on them, the whole sort of zigzag thing comes directly from [Burns's] work. And the shapes of the heads actually came from the way that he would stylize people, whereas the [headpieces for the] snowflakes came from Dairy Queen.
Morris: And the tutus are snowflakes.
Pakledinaz: They're hard snowflakes. Because you said they should look hard.
Morris: Frozen.
Pakledinaz: I'd never done a tutu before, that's for sure.
Morris: But it's a snowflake. You went through a million snowflakes. And you know, they're all identical.
Pakledinaz: But you can see the black and white—the way we just represented it was always referring to his graphic qualities.

How did you design the costumes for Snow and Flowers, knowing that men and women would be wearing them? Did that come into play?
Pakledinaz: In that period of work, Mark was playing fast and loose with gender in his partnering, and he still does, but not as much. Whenever you're doing something with the two sexes, it's always that tricky thing of how do you take care of the physical business—i.e., the breasts and the crotch? In this one, it did come to this sort of pragmatic crop top. The midsection was neutral, so I could use their midsections, but I had to cover up the chest. At least they would have the same silhouette, as opposed to saying, "This is a male snowflake and this is a female." Mark made it clear he did not want that, which is where the headdresses help a lot, too, because they really do neutralize people: The strength of a woman's face shows up and the prettiness of a boy's face shows up. Then, the flowers I think were really just 19th-century romance. In fact the big compliment was when he said, "These look Russian." That was good. I hadn't thought that. I was like, Great. I'll take that. [To Morris] You say nice things once in awhile.
Morris: I know! I can't remember any of them. You remember them.
Pakledinaz: Well, this was the biggest show I'd ever done. I'd assisted on musicals, but I'd never designed my own, and I couldn't believe they were giving us as much money as they were giving. I have to admit, had I known, we would have understudy costumes. We don't have one extra costume.

There are so many little details, like Marie's bunny slippers, which I love.
Pakledinaz: I think we kept riffing off of each other.
Morris: It's funny, isn't it?
Pakledinaz: But so much of it was...
Morris: What if it's G.I. Joes? Of course! And Barbie.
Pakledinaz: It would always be the first, most obvious thing: What if [the Nutcracker Prince] looks like [Bob's] Big Boy? It was not trying to be convoluted at all. It was trying to be as apparent as it should be in anyone's dream of his or her own life.
Morris: Adrianne and I went to the newly created Toys "R" Us and just shopped for these horrifying toys that we give to the kids. The helicopter and the gun and these horrible violent toys, and then these nauseating things and the ugly sweater—[we used executive director] Nancy Umanoff's own sweater. That's the best joke in the world. The ugly-sweater joke is in the music! No one ever knew that. [Laughs]
Pakledinaz: Thank God it's there. And you would have thought it was such a flippant thing, but we saw the sets first, and they were black and white, and I think one of us said, "Well, it's Christmas, so I guess it's red and green and black and white," and we just went on from there.
Morris: It starts and ends in black and white. Nobody really notices that because it's so fast; and then the dancers come on immediately after in the same clothes, but they're colored. It's subliminal.
Morris: It was my idea to have a Mercado Projection Map of the world instead of a globe. In the story, when [Marie] climbs up the sleeve of her father's fur coat, following the Nutcracker? That is so fucking sick; that's when they come out into snow. It's like, Wow. So it's also that. Everything fits into the circle, and I thought this had to be like a gorgeous '60s map from a news show with that projection. That was my idea. One of my few ideas.

Is there still pointe work in Snow?
Morris: No.

When did that change?
Morris: When we realized we were going to do it until the end of time, and you just can't dance on pointe for three weeks a year when you're 32. Please. So France is still on pointe. Snow—it was a gorgeous idea. The steps are still the same, but it's not on pointe, and it was pretty dangerous with the confetti. It was just, No. It doesn't make much difference anymore. So the housekeeper is on pointe and France is still on pointe and that's it.

You know that there have been so many versions of the Nutcracker since The Hard Nut. Do you think this had anything to do with that?
Morris: Well, you know, Chris Wheeldon's doing one for the Joffrey Ballet. Hooray. We get another one.
Pakledinaz: I think this definitely broke down the borders of what you could do with a dance like this.
Morris: I guess it was 20-something years ago, so yeah.
Pakledinaz: Bourne's Swan Lake is fantastic, but it came after this, didn't it?
Morris: I see my influence on other people's work. That makes me very happy. Mr. Ratmansky has seen my work. And Mr. Balanchine's work and a whole bunch of other stuff, and hooray. It's great. I love that. [Ratmansky's] Namouna [a Grand Divertissement]—one of the great dances.
Pakledinaz: I think the tricky thing is that this dance is so big in its scope that the sad irony is that it doesn't fit in any Broadway house.
Morris: It also was never meant to tour.
Pakledinaz: The first year it happened, we had friends from Broadway going, "When's it coming in?"
Morris: It wasn't built to tour. They're huge, heavy pieces of scenery. It's intense. Most Nutcrackers have 100 people and it pays the rent for the rest of the year. We use a real chorus singing. We use a very good orchestra.

It's not a money-maker?
Morris: No, the opposite. And there are only 35 people in it. Backstage is five times more work than onstage. Everybody's changing wigs and clothes and costumes and it's wild. There are people in the show I don't even see because they're on a completely different schedule of makeup and performing. When I stopped doing Arabian, I could watch more of it, but I never saw the prince do anything. I barely make it in time to watch the Waltz of the Flowers. It's like that for everybody. You're in a makeup chair until the second you go onstage. My company's great. And it's no kids, which is nice. The other thing is there's exactly the same amount of Ivanov and Petipa [style] in my production as there is in anybody else's, just no one can see it. It's 12 people doing the coda, doing the piqu turns and the turns in second.
Pakledinaz: The coda always turns my heart inside out. I don't know—there's always a fear that it's going to go onstage and everything the designers drew will kill it or something, but I must admit, the way you figured out the coda and how all of a sudden against that black and white, the world starts coming in. I just got really weepy.
Morris: Well, the pas de deux into the coda, the whole thing—yeah. It's intense. And the apotheosis, it's just them—young people dancing together forever. Oh, and with the snow, I had already choreographed sparkly actions, and then we get to how many rails there are where you can hang shit—drops and lights and everything—and we were going to do a snow bag, like you do with snow. It was like, We can't. There's no room. It would be one pathetic snow bag. And, also, snow falls all year in a theater that does a snow scene.

I know that.
Morris: It's like, Oh, I love your new dance. [His gaze fixates on an imaginary piece of falling snow] Or the moth at Jacob's Pillow. It's insane. It's like the TVs in a sports bar. But we had the money and the crew, and we thought, We'll have fly crew sit upstairs and throw handfuls of snow. It's like, Well, you know it's going to look fucking pathetic. We need shitloads of snow. So it became confetti, and I didn't have to add anything. They were already doing this in the choreography—like these sort of flashes. And so we just added a fistful of confetti, and it made it the most beautiful thing in the world. We auditioned many different types of confetti. You had to learn how to do it. If you hold on too long, it clumps together, gets sweaty. It's in cardboard boxes in the wings.

So they're running over to get more every time they exit?
Morris: Yeah. You have to enter the stage with your hands full and leave with them empty every time. And it's part of the choreography: They stop and grab a fistful of snow and run, run, run. It's intense. That's one reason why it's not on pointe anymore. I mean, it's still called the "pointe part"—but it's not on pointe. It's intense, and the whole intermission is vacuuming up snow.

And also, in terms of the confetti, you probably had to test out many kinds under the lights, too, right?
Morris: Yeah. What catches it—people think it's glitter. It's a particular shape that catches air and takes longer to fall. It's great. It's magic! What about the remote-control rats, which are favorites of young people? Those took so much work, and they failed all the time. They now work consistently. But there are three people in the show, and for some reason they're boys, who have remote controls, and they're in the wings driving the rats.

What did you figure out about Tchaikovsky's music by choreographing The Hard Nut?
That it's way better than anyone recognizes. And that most people do the tempi completely wrong. Tchaikovsky wrote very specific tempi and of course in the Russian tradition, you just speed up and slow down for whoever's doing it that night. For something like the Tarantella, which is written [Morris hums the upbeat melody] at that speed, it's usually done [the melody becomes slow and bombastic] for the big jump. It's not a big jump. It's a Tarantella. And something like Arabian, which is [usually] done slow-motion—it's a gorgeous barcarole, and it's done slow-motion so you can pull your foot over your head. It's insane. I think it's ghastly what's happened to the music, and the extrapolations and the edits are just idiotic for me. And the music from Act I, which everyone just sleeps through because it's the most boring fucking thing in the world—that music is incredible. And that's the hard music to play and to conduct. It changes tempo and meter constantly; it interrupts itself all the time. It's wonderful, wonderful music.

When you choreographed the party scene—since costumes are very important—were you in the room? Or did you watch, or come in after?
Pakledinaz: That was back and forth all of the way, because the dancers themselves offered ideas—[Morris glares] Oh, I've gotta go. Getting texted, gotta go. [Laughs] Like any director, he would say, "I need a hippie couple, I need the swinging couple, I need the stay-at-home-think-they're-interesting-but-they're-not couple. And then the one that just starts weeping wildly.
Morris: Yeah. Weeping, weeping.
Pakledinaz: That was a back-and-forth.
Morris: We spent months of the summer before [creating the party scene], and I would say, "Okay, you're a couple, you're a couple, you guys are together," and I knew a little bit: The door's here, and it's a party. And we really found it through improvising. And then I put in the bump and the stroll and the promenade and the hokey-pokey. People don't even know the fucking hokey-pokey anymore. And that came from improvising: Wouldn't that be funny if this happened? Or wouldn't it be sad or bizarre? At one point, I asked Penny Hutchinson, who was in the original cast, "Can you just make sure that this drink gets off the TV?" And she said, "No. I have an argument with her, I go over there. I lose an earring, I have to pull myself together, and then I run into her." It's like, "Okay. Anybody available?" [Laughs] But the rule is if you see something on the floor, you pick it up. It's like, "Your wig is falling off"—and then you go to the bathroom and freshen up, just like you would. When we made the TV show [for Dance in America], I disagreed with [edits], but I agreed because I had to for continuity. I saw no problem with somebody picking up a blue drink and putting down a red drink—I think that's funny and interesting. But it's a little more conservative at Dance in America, and this was 20 years ago. So the TV show's very good, but there are little bits missing. Musically it bothers me more than visually. The Arabian dance isn't in it [now it is included in the DVD], and the [moment with the] ugly sweater? I don't think it's in it.

No, it's not.
Morris: There are a few things where it's like, Oh, that's jarring.
Pakledinaz: When you're watching the stage, your eyes get to be everywhere.
Morris: You're making up your own damn show.
Pakledinaz: And the television screen is always going to tell you where to look.
Morris: And with something like The Hard Nut, which was choreographed for film, what you're not seeing isn't happening. You don't wish the camera were somewhere else. That's why you go to the fucking theater. I'm so dirty. Don't I say fuck all the time?
Pakledinaz: I know. You never have before. Where is it coming from?
Morris: I'm acting out.
Pakledinaz: It's always interesting to go back to that time, though. There was all of the drama of doing a show that was bigger than anybody had ever envisioned. It was like doing a new Broadway show for me. I thought, Just keep working, just keep going, going, going. At a certain point, I was [in Brussels] all the time.
Morris: There are a million really funny, funny tiny details—not just in behavior but in the costumes and the set. The piece of modern art on the wall. It's funny. People have earrings that are like little Christmas packages wrapped up. One year I brought mistletoe to the party and was making out with everybody. We can do that. It's very, very set, but it's also completely open.
Pakledinaz: Another whole segment that makes me weep again too is when the two Drosselmeiers are dancing. It's one of the great pieces of art. Actually, a very important thing happened. Clarice [Marshall as Marie] was going to do the entire piece in a nightgown. Then the week before the show, she and Mark said [about the final duet], "We realize we need a dress. We need to see that she's transformed into a woman." And I designed it overnight.

It's such a great dress—and so different from anything else in the show.
Pakledinaz: I wonder if it's partially because it's so specifically designed for Clarice.
Morris: She was something like 30 when we did it. She is 75 now.
Pakledinaz: And the piece is 80 years old. No, but actually, it was about making it slender. It followed some of the rules, but you're right. It's its own dress.

She's her own woman at that point.
Pakledinaz: Yeah. And I think that duet between the two of them is so human and so beautiful. At that point, the cartoon could go away.
Morris: That's the part that people have complained about—and they do—saying that it's underchoreographed. It's like, Boy, here's what I think: Almost everything I see is overchoreographed. It's like, I wish it were a little less innovative so I could just watch. I don't need to see her tied up in a new kind of knot I've never seen before. It's like, dance. Okay, dance. What's wrong with that? The original casting was as racially specific as I could do it. And I still do that. Let's see: I have a Mexican-American, he's in Spain—because he's as close as we can get. It's like, Okay, you're Korean? That's close enough—you're in Chinese. And that's funny and wrong. Or the fact that the Arabians are wearing two Rolex watches on each hand.
Pakledinaz: We had to get rid of that the second year. They're in their caftans and their Ray-Bans and Rolex watches, but the next year there was a bomb threat on the theater because of the Gulf War, and they said we couldn't put the wristwatches on them.
Morris: We didn't do the dance.
Pakledinaz: We didn't do the dance because of that?
Morris: And we moved the light on the map from Kuwait to somewhere else.

Why do you still perform in this show?
Morris: You bitch. That's not off the record. You bitch!

I didn't mean it in a bad way! Why do you still like to perform in it?,
Morris: I didn't say I liked to. I'm still in it. I do like to. I don't know. Why not?

Why?
Morris: As I became the creepy uncle—when I was in my pieces with my young company, it's like, Oh, yuck. What's that creepy guy doing revving his van outside the playground with a lost puppy? That's what I turned into in my own work. But that's perfectly appropriate in this piece. I'm like the creepy drunk. But I'm not this year, you know.

You will make your debut as Dr. Stahlbaum.
Pakledinaz: But you were never that character that you described. You're making that joke, but [you were playing a character that] was just smashed at a party.
Morris: Yeah. If I get tired, I sit down. I'm the only person who's alone, which is fun. I'm funny. And yes, I'm still finding my role as Dr. Stahlbaum. John [Heginbotham as Mrs. Stahlbaum] and I have a lot of rehearsal scheduled together.

When did you know how good The Hard Nut was?
Pakledinaz: I knew it was good as I was watching it.
Morris: Immediately. Maybe before. It was a huge hit, by the way. It wasn't hated, it was adored. But it was very heavy, because it was our last big show, and a lot of people were leaving the company. It was really intense. I was bawling, I'll tell you that.

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