Tuesday, April 16, 2024
DanceEntertainment

Mark Morris’ queer Nutcracker to delight Detroit

The Hard Nut is a deconstruction of the beloved Holiday favorite, The Nutcracker, and now Detroit Opera brings Mark Morris’ contemporary queer American Ballet to the stage inn time for Christmas.

Undoubtedly one of the most popular ballets of all time, The Nutcracker, including the adored Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, has been delighting mainstream audiences since 1892 and driving scores of little girls to become ballerinas. Russia does not promote the fact that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, its foremost composer of the Romantic period and the first of his culture to achieve international fame, was gay.

Fast forward one hundred years and gay choreographer Mark Morris debuted The Hard Nut, a contemporary, 1990s gender-bending take on The Nutcracker. That was 31 years ago, and Morris broke new ground because while there were LGBTQ trailblazers making an impact on mainstream culture, it was mostly in film and music—not ballet. It was rare to see queer culture portrayed so lavishly and using a narrative that had been viewed as traditional and family-affirming. In The Hard Nut, main characters are represented by drag queens, there is a male/male pas de deux, male roles are danced by females and vice-versa, and gender non-conforming crop-tops and tutus mark the iconic dance of the snowflakes.

Now, Morris’ landmark work is back for a new audience whose embrace of diversity in 2022 largely comes thanks to much of the work done by LGBTQ artists in the Culture Wars of the 1990s. Conversations around queer culture, representation, and inclusivity are center stage—and The Hard Nut is back this holiday season for a whole new audience with new expectations and perspectives. If you can make it to the Detroit Opera House you’ll be delighted by Tchaikovsky’s beloved score, performed of course by a live orchestra, with the story transposed E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original story to the swinging 1970s, with the additional layers of the queer experimentalism of the ’90s—all while preserving the holiday spirit of the original. And instead of the “chocolate box” aesthetic of the original Nutcracker, Morris borrowed from pop-art style of comic book illustrator Charles Burns.

Mark Morris told Queer Forty:

“I wanted to do one of the great Tchaikovsky ballet scores, and decided on The Nutcracker, in large part because I had never seen a production that used the music in the original sequence and tempos. Living in Brussels, a very conservative city (at least in the late ’80s-early ’90s) we were perceived as sort of Hippy, Liberal, Vulgar, Sloppy, and Diverse. Not entirely wrong, actually. My marvelous collaborators and I devised a show which was roughly based on our own American childhoods. I wanted to show how fun, chaotic, commercial, secular, vulgar, ambiguous, tender, coarse, loving, cheap, sincere, sad, and important Christmas is in the USA.

“I’ve always been gay, and occasionally proud. The Hard Nut is not meant to ‘queer the canon.’ I was taken aback by the antiquated Euro-attitude towards women, race, sexuality, religiosity, and the arts. To present a sacrosanct ‘Classic’ ballet in an exaggerated, parodic, entertaining, and brand-new way was a big event in the gorgeous Opera House, La Monnaie/De Munt. It was a surprise hit, and radical for the time.”

Morris is also aware of the seismic shift in US culture since he devised the ballet as a European expat. But the current orthodoxy of our own queer culture is something that the performing arts can address with humor.

“The opening night crowd was quite surprised to see their own assumptions and stereotypes ‘sent up’ in a many ways,” reveals Morris. “The nature of humor involves exaggeration, parody, satire, cultural assumptions and pushing limits. Not every joke or stinger lands in the same way over the years, but the performing arts are based on the assumption of a kind of fiction, and of fantasy. It is make-believe…pretend. Gender, incomprehension, obliviousness, caste and class, commercialism, sexuality, Puritanism, Old v. New; all are subject to the humor and humanity, fine and coarse, obvious and subtle of this beautiful show. It is still radical in the fact that it has become, through its long history, a fully accepted Classic Nutcracker. It is a gesture of love, kindness, and complexity.”

The Mark Morris Dance Group’s The Hard Nut, December 3-4, Detroit Opera House. Tickets start at $59.

Merryn Johns

Merryn Johns is the Editor-in-Chief of Queer Forty. She is an award-winning journalist, as well as a broadcaster and public speaker. Originally from Sydney, Australia where she began her career in journalism in the 1990s, she is based in New York City where she became the editor-in-chief of Curve Magazine and wrote for a variety of publications including Vanity Fair, Vogue, Slate, and more. Follow on Twitter at @Merryn1

Merryn Johns has 140 posts and counting. See all posts by Merryn Johns

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