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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Hard Nut Nuggets

L-R: Julie Worden, June Omura, Mark Morris, Lauren Grant. Photo: Susana Millman
Mark Morris Dance Group returns to BAM with The Hard Nut (December 12—20) choreographed by Mark Morris in 1991 to Tchaikovsky’s beloved Nutcracker, op. 71, with sets by Adrianne Lobel (after Charles Burns) and costumes by Martin Pakledinaz. Some members of the company shared anecdotes from the ballet’s history.

JUNE OMURA (MMDG company member 1988—2008; “Fritz” in The Hard Nut 1994—2015) Once, when the inimitable Peter Wing Healey was injured and the character of Mrs. Stahlbaum had not yet been thrillingly re-created by John Heginbotham, there were two memorable performances of The Hard Nut in Edinburgh when Mark Morris stepped into the role of my mom, uncomfortable high heels and all. Every character in the party scene has a different “track,” and Mark was already in it as a hilariously drunken party guest, so re-learning the scene from such a different perspective had to have been stressful, even for Mark. But after running through it a few times (I remember his directions to “Keep talking!” and “Tell me what to do!”), he was ready to go. I was naughty Fritz, and Mark was now my mother. Scary—for both of us!

The surprise, in performance, was that Mark’s “inner mom” turned out to be so genuinely sweet. Loving, even! Onstage as Fritz, I suddenly felt that no matter how badly I misbehaved, I would be treated with gentle fondness. This Mrs. Stahlbaum loved her troublesome boy unconditionally, and was the kindest parent you’d ever want to grow up with. Now that I am the mother of a darling nine-year-old son, the memory of having once been Mark’s Mrs. Stahlbaum’s little boy is a dear one. I like to imagine that some version of Mark’s mother, Maxine Morris, was worked into his portrayal of Mrs. Stahlbaum, and that, as Fritz, I am experiencing what it was like to be Mark as a son—just as he, perhaps, was experiencing what it might have been like to be Maxine. Every mother, and every son, should get such a chance for perspective.

STACY MARTORANA (MMDG company member since 2012; “Barbie”/Arabia) I was hired into the Mark Morris Dance Group as a full time company member in November 2012, and my first show after that was The Hard Nut, in Berkeley, CA. It was my first time dancing in the show. I had thought that after being hired, I would be less nervous performing, but alas, me being the crazy, nervous nelly that I was, I was more nervous! I wanted to prove that I was worthy of this position I was given. One of my roles was in the Arabian dance, and I had no idea how difficult it would be. We are dressed in long robes, literally from head to toe, and wear sunglasses, making it difficult to see while on stage. Much of the choreography includes getting down to the floor, then getting back up. During one show, my foot got caught in my costume, and it was clear to me immediately that I was not going to be able to free it before going offstage! I somehow managed to rise to a flamingo-like position, and while all the other dancers were able to walk around the stage, I had to continue on, hopping on one foot in order to keep up—no easy feat while trying to balance with limited vision! I managed to get through the dance, and no one from the audience ever mentioned anything about it to me. I can’t wait to perform that role again this year!

NOAH VINSON (MMDG company member since 2004; France) I remember my very first performances of Mark Morris’ production of The Hard Nut. These were back in 2002 at BAM. I was extremely nervous when I found out that I would be dancing in the Arabian dance with Mark Morris as the lead. During one performance, something wasn’t right. We were supposed to enter from stage left carrying Mark, but as the music from the previous section was ending, we quickly realized that he was not there. In a panic, we got into position and made our entrance like we were supposed to, but without our lead. Suddenly, Mark came jumping out of the wings from the opposite side of the stage, in full character, as if that’s what he was always meant to do. The nerves quickly changed to excitement, and the thrill of watching Mark in the moment was just one of many wonderful memories I have had performing in The Hard Nut.

Amber Star Merkens & Noah Vinson. Photo: Susana Millman
LAUREN GRANT (MMDG Company member since 1996; “Marie” since 1998) Onstage, the Mark Morris Dance Group will present a brilliant take on The Nutcracker story, but offstage, the cast and crew of The Hard Nut must simultaneously execute a different show—one in which dancers dodge moving floor-to-ceiling set pieces; wig and wardrobe personnel perform highly choreographed quick-changes; and tutu-clad “Snowflakes” systematically shimmy off their accumulated confetti. In the final scene of Act 1 the audience is treated to one of the most surprising and magical blizzards. From the wings, I watch my colleagues’ crystalline precision in form, space, and rhythm. They seem to float through the air as would a lacy snowflake catching a current of air. And then… group after group, these heavenly snowflakes rush around the wings—sweat pouring off their foreheads, gasping for breath, spitting out ingested “snow”—only then to re-enter the stage space and seamlessly resume their cascading eddies, effectively transporting the viewers to a strange and wondrous winter landscape.

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