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Mark Morris Dance Group - 'The Hard Nut'

Boring through the holidays

by Lyndsey Winship

November 2004 -- Sadler's Wells, London

Every ballet has its boring bits. Usually it’s the opening, the scene-setting – at a party or in the market place perhaps – the corps mingling and pretending to chatter, not really up to much. This is when ballet can feel frustratingly mute and you’re thinking, ‘Come on, get on with it’, until the hero or heroine arrives with some proper steps and a plot.

It’s a shame that Mark Morris’s "Hard Nut" has a boring bit that lasts for most of the first act.

Morris has taken E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original Nutcracker story and relocated it to late 60s America, complete with fantastic comic book-style sets by Adrianne Lobel. Unfortunately, like the comic strips it apes, the action is purely two-dimensional.

It’s Christmas Eve and Dr. Stahlbaum and his wife are having their annual party, the guests arrive, each bringing with them a stereotype of party-going behaviour – drunkenness, lechery, awkwardness etc. There’s definitely something amusing about doing the hand jive to Tchaikovsky’s score but otherwise the laughs are pretty thin.

Luckily, it gets better. One of the party guests, Drosselmeier, brings a nutcracker for the Stahlbaum children, and later when young Marie can’t sleep she creeps downstairs to look at it. In this dark-edged night-time world, everything grows to giant size. Huge remote-control rats with glowing eyes scoot across the stage and life-sized GI Joes burst into action. Morris is nothing if not inventive.

Best of all is the blizzard scene where the cast become snowflakes, men and woman all identically dressed in tiny tutus and silver head-dresses. They leap across the stage flinging handfuls of snow, perfectly synchronised with the thrusting accents of the music. It’s like a yuletide fireworks show and perfectly nails the balance between kitsch comedy and clever dancing.

In the second act things get a bit confusing, thanks to a complex and ridiculous plot from Hoffmann and much blurring of fantasy and reality. All you need to know is to read the synopsis before you see the show.

"The Hard Nut" is good, brightly-coloured fun. The cast is slick, the orchestra adroit and it all ends happily ever after. Thirteen years on from its creation it stands up pretty well on its first visit to London. And the Brits were bound to enjoy this, with its cross-dressing, crass stereotypes, grotesque characters and always-arched eyebrows – after all, we get pantomime every year.

Edited by Jeff.

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