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Scenes from Mark Morris Dance Group performing "The Hard Nut" at the BAM Opera House on December 9, 2010, part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music Next Wave Festival 2010. Credit: Stephanie Berger

Mark Morris' "The Hard Nut" is back at Cal Performances this weekend and next in a finely roasted staging of one of the most successful cartoon parodies of classical ballet around.

Like many great lampoons, the two-act ballet, accompanied by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra and the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir, mocks the 19th-century Russian-made "Nutcracker" and does it with pinpoint precision. In Morris' hands, elegant Snow Flakes morph into bare-bellied personifications of Soft-Swirl ice cream cones, Flowers look plucked out of a Busby Berkeley routine, and the typically staid Stahlbaum family at the center of the tale are the post-WWII generation and their boomer children with lousy values and even worse tastes, but every bit as endearing and dreadful as your extended family.

In the traditional version of the ballet, the opening act takes us into a splendid parlor on a wintry night. There in the glow of a Christmas tree and mountains of gifts, the assembled partygoers are treacly representations of the European upper middle class of at least a century ago.

By contrast, in Morris' black-and-white pop art living room designed by Adrianne Lobel, a finely calibrated American chaos reigns. Action bursts all over the stage like Pop Rocks. Mini dresses and bell bottoms are the rule, and almost everyone is oversexed and undercivilized, drinking too much, wolfing down pills and humping anything that moves. Morris even throws in the toilet-paper-on-the-shoe sight gag in case you missed his point. And still, it's family entertainment -- think "The Simpsons" rendered as dance -- and like any good cartoon, a lot of innuendo will fly over the kids' heads.


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Morris also demonstrates his silken ability to make Tchaikovsky's lush score appear to unfurl organically, as almost no other "Nutcracker" does. The traditional Children's Gallop becomes a musically rich and visually hilarious demonstration of the Swim, the Frug and the Bump, all of which seem eminently more suited to the spirit and pace of the orchestra's violins than a wooden gallop.

Then there is the cast, which is comforting in its familiarity, but more importantly, shows what depth long-term ensemble work brings a performing troupe. After 16 years in the role, Lauren Grant remains a remarkable Marie. She is the young girl around whom the story is built, who is given a magical Nutcracker doll by wizard-godfather Drosselmeyer (the acerbically urbane Billy Smith). In Marie's long dream that constitutes most of the ballet, Drosselmeyer will morph into his young doppelganger, and Marie, with her Shirley Temple curls and diminutive scale, will leave behind her doll-like self to evolve into a young woman capable of first love.

The production is awash in cameos, the most notable being choreographer Morris in the role of portly, nerdy, yet wise Dr. Stahlbaum in Act 1 and the cartoon King in Act 2. Longtime company member John Heginbotham is trans-glorious in his green hostess dress as Mrs. Stahlbaum/the Queen. Kraig Patterson, who has been in maid's dress and pointe shoes for the role of housekeeper and nurse since the ballet's inception in 1991, plays it quieter but deeper than 16 years ago. And June Omura, who is 48 and has three kids of her own, continues to blast what little serenity there is in the first act as the pest Fritz, Marie's brother.

"The Hard Nut" is a mash note, not only to the "Nutcracker" but to music and dance wherever it is on the map, nodding, skewering, but ultimately celebrating the small fractious realm that dance is. How apt, then, that this production is dedicated to the Tony award-winning costumer and longtime company associate Martin Pakledinaz, who died in July of a brain tumor at 58. His profound but quiet insights into Morris' story lines and his gentle modesty added much more than clothes to the company over the years. They embodied the collective generosity that the best dance provides.

Contact Ann Murphy at writingdance@yahoo.com

dance review

Cal Performances presents Mark Morris Dance Group's "The Hard Nut"
Where: Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft and Telegraph, Berkeley
When: 2 and 8 p.m. Dec. 15 and 22, 3 p.m. Dec. 16 and 23, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 20 and 21
Tickets: $30-$110, 510-642-9988, www.calperformances.org