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Mark Morris Dance Group - 'The Hard Nut'

Post-modern charm

by Julia Skene-Wenzel

November 12, 2004 -- Sadler's Wells, London

"The Nutcracker" has long been an established Christmas treat – a journey into childhood, filled with snowstorms and dancing dolls – an innocent dream elevating its participants beyond reality. Tchaikovsky and Petipa’s ballet version of E.T. A. Hoffman’s "Nutcracker and Mouseking"(1816) has gripped generations of audiences and has given rise to countless new interpretations. However, in contrast to the sugar-coated versions that we are all familiar with, Hoffman’s tale has a dark undertone and proves a challenging read. Stories within the story unfold the heroine’s quest to be with her beloved Nutcracker, leading through the big battle between soldiers and mice, the search for the hard nut and the journey to the land of sweets.

Rejecting added gloss, Mark Morris’ satirical production "The Hard Nut" keeps within Hoffman’s framework. The Stahlbaum’s Christmas party introduces us to the world of 1960s suburbia, including a fireplace on TV, a silver Christmas tree with electric candles, three children, a maid and plenty of guests with afros, miniskirts and flares. Their carefree party spirit blends disco dancing with classical forms and takes Tchaikovsky’s score into unknown territory. The colourful scene is surrounded by a black and white set, inspired by the horror comic book cartoonist Charles Burns: a hollow black tunnel serves as a blank canvas allowing various layers to be added and taken away from stage. Its two-dimensionality creates an unnerving contrast to the characters on stage and gives it a surreal edge.

Act One stays close to Petipa’s original ballet order. At the party, Uncle Drosselmeier entertains with big dancing dolls -- in this case a robot and a Barbie doll.  Marie is a witness and active participant in the fight between GI toy soldiers and mice, and the Nutcracker transforms into a prince while snowflakes create a magical blizzard on stage. Act Two opens with the tale of the hard nut, a subplot to the actual narrative: a feverish Marie listens to uncle Drosselmeier’s story, which takes him around the world in search of the hard nut and reaches its climax by Marie’s dream taking over, uniting her with the Nutcracker.

Morris’ talent for visualising music is extraordinary. From simple gestures to carefully orchestrated ensemble work, every crescendo and nuance of Tchaikovsky’s score comes to life. Its structure seamlessly blends with "The Hard Nut’s" hybrid form, a spectacular fusion of popular and high culture, which highlights society's and ballet’s traditions and lovingly parodies their characteristics.

However, beyond the comedy, Morris creates moments of sheer beauty:  his soft and fluid style surprises in flashes of crisp clarity, where sharp leaps melt into soft turns. A tender duet between Drosselmeier and his fictitious Nutcracker prince turns into a classical pas de deux that challenges conventional gender divisions. Cross-dressing Mrs Stahlbaum and her maid are flawlessly presented by John Heginbotham and Kraig Patterson, while the snowflakes and flowers form a polished unisex ensemble.

It is in fact the ensemble work that reveals Morris’ real strength. The snowflakes create a swirling storm, where dancers toss confetti into the air to the peaks of the music, while lines and circles intertwine and create a mesmerizing kaleidoscope of patterns. These are deepened in the waltz of flowers, where simple movements turn into waves of motion, travelling across stage. His most controversial choreographic decision replaces the final duet between Marie and the Nutcracker with a group-like coda, featuring all participants. In a feverish climax, everyone carries and elevates the couple beyond the boundaries of the story. The childlike purity of this passage seems so appropriate for the affection of a young girl that it makes up for the loss of a big romantic crescendo.

Since its creation, in 1991, "The Hard Nut" has been hailed as a milestone in post-modern dance. Its play with form, bold fusion of cultural references, traditions and gender allows the production to rise over other interpretations, but it is the charm of Morris’ humour and the beauty of his choreography that turns this Nutcracker it into a truly enjoyable and uplifting experience.

Edited by Jeff.

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