Tough to Crack 

The Hard Nut keeps returning for a reason.

At one time Christmas may have been primarily religious, but some of the better holiday traditions around the Bay Area have little or nothing to do with that. Among these is the annual return of Mark Morris Dance Group to Zellerbach Hall with The Hard Nut, which has become a staple of the Cal Performances season ever since its West Coast premiere in Berkeley in 1996.

More than that, choreographer Morris' reimagining of The Nutcracker inspired by the work of cartoonist Charles Burns (whose Big Baby strip used to run in this very paper) has become a Christmas classic in its own right. Morris adds dancing Barbies and GI Joes, '60s cocktail attire, Russian nesting dolls, squabbling sibs, and cross-dressing dancers while staying true to the heart of E.T.A. Hoffman story "The Nutcracker and the King of Mice" — and of course the unforgettable music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Seriously, it's easier to forget your own name than "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy." Morris' take is similarly unforgettable, often hilarious, and much less saccharine than the traditional ballet version, but also awfully touching in its own right when it counts.

There may come a time for the next generation to turn The Hard Nut itself on its head, but until then this is still the nut to crack. The Berkeley Symphony Orchestra accompanies, conducted by Robert Cole. The Hard Nut plays Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m., December 14-23 at Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley. Tickets $32-$60, available at 510-642-9988 or CalPerfs.Berkeley.edu.

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