Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Hard Nut

Every year at this time, I read rave reviews about Mark Morris's version of The Nutcracker ballet. It's been a regular event at Cal Performances for several years now. So this year I finally broke down & decided to check it out this past Saturday night.

When you go the SF Ballet's Nutcracker, there are lots of parents with little girls all dressed up. I didn't see any children at this performance, but there must be have been some. There were plenty of restless adults, however. It took the audience quite a while to settle down. During the overture, there was lots of talking & lots of sushing. The woman next to me started yawning as soon as the lights went down, then snored intermittently during the entire 1st act. Surprisingly, she came back for the 2nd act. I guess she had rested up by then.

The production reminds me of the Matthew Bourne versions of classic ballets that I've seen. The music is intact, but the action has been replaced by a modern story that still references the original scenario. There is a strong sense of parody. The Christmas party of the 1st scene takes place in a comic strip version of the 1960s. The opening image is of kids watching cartoons on TV. There's an artificial tree, a hostess on tranquillizers & guests doing the limbo.

The party scene is more acting then dancing, & there is more going on than you can follow. The dancers are all great actors as well. One of the guests was a hilarious would-be lothario with curly hair & long sideburns. I discovered in a review I read later that this was Mark Morris himself.

The Dance of the Snow Flakes that ends the 1st act is the highlight of the show & worth the price of admission by itself. Instead of ballerinas doing wispy pirouettes while fake snow wafts down from the rafters, the corps de ballet provides its own snow storm by tossing handfuls of confetti in choreographed patterns while executing athletic leaps. The result is like a fireworks show. I actually let out a whoop at the climax. It's such a clever idea that you wonder why no one has ever done this before.

This number is choreographed for both male & female dancers, dressed identically & doing the same steps. This exemplified the gender-fluid casting of the show in general. It was only during the intermission that I finally convinced myself that Mrs. Stahlbaum was danced by a man. The female dancer playing the spoiled little brother was also completely convincing.

A truly nice touch was the children's choir that appeared at the side of the stage for the Dance of Snow Flakes to provide the vocal line. I believe that even the SF Ballet uses recorded voices for this.

This finale was so good that during the intermission I was pretty much expecting that the rest of the evening would be a let-down. Fortunately, the 2nd act has a counterpart in the Waltz of the Flowers that was equally fun & joyful, as well as a little bit obscene. Now I know what all the raves are about.

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