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Mark Morris Dance Group - 'The Hard Nut'

Making it new

by Ana Abad-Carles

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

Mark Morris Dance Group presented "The Hard Nut" (1991) for the first time in London last Friday. Though the piece was familiar to all Morris fans through the existing video recording, it was nevertheless an exciting occasion, for nothing can make up for the live experience of a dance work, especially if the choreographer is still in full charge of the piece.

The idea of taking a familiar classical work and give it a different look is not new, even in the ballet world. Roland Petit changed many of the classical ballets in form and content –perhaps his best example is his famous reworking of "Coppélia" - and so did
Rudolf Nureyev and of course Maurice Béjart and John Neumeier. In fact, "The Nutcracker" is a case in point when it comes to reworkings. Few classical ballets have had such a myriad of readings, maybe due to the fact that, though being a “classic” firmly anchored in the standard repertoire of companies throughout the world, it has no original surviving choreography, unlike "Swan Lake", "Raymonda", "The Sleeping Beauty", and the rest of ballets that conform the usual “classical” repertoire. Thus, the reworking by Mark Morris should not be considered a novelty per se. However, the way in which he articulates Tchaikovsky’s music might be considered so.

Morris provided the dance world with a work so full of original twists that his reading of the music was to influence other reworkings of familiar ballets in a similar vein, most notably Mathew Bourne’s "Swan Lake". Unlike Bourne’s work, though, Morris’s focuses on comedy and a contagious joie de vivre and rids itself of the darker aspects of the tale, or rather turns them into a mad parody of our expectations.

The ballet opens with the three children sitting down on the stage while the curtain is down and the orchestra plays the Overture. Once the curtain goes up we see that they are watching television. The television will become a central motif of the whole ballet, playing with fiction and reality as, in fact, television so often does. The ballet is set in the seventies or late sixties and the sets and costumes wonderfully evoke cartoons from that time.

The party scene is a hilarious parade of party stereotypes that, though dressed in the fashion of the day, easily find their parallels in any party taking place nowadays. It would take several viewings to actually take in all that goes on during the different numbers and this is the most successful part of Morris's work. The first act from beginning to end is just a joy to watch. Whereas in most classical productions the first act usually remains an uninspiring affair, in Morris’s it is well crafted and inventive. All the guests are perfectly characterised and the choreography, after all these years, remains inventive, surprising and full of hilarious moments. If there is one thing Morris has always relied on, it is his musicality and this does never fail throughout the scene. Even if this musicality could be accused of being – in Paul Taylor’s words -- Micky Mousing, the way in which he manages to Micky Mouse the different numbers is always surprising and daring at times.

To list all the wonderful performances by the members of his company would be a tiring task. Suffice to say that, to their credit, they all managed to make their characters, however mad or stereotyped, totally believable in their madness. Of course, Morris as the drunken guest should get special mention, as should all the main characters that make up the Stahlbaum household.

The dream sequence is beautifully crafted. Again, this is one of the most difficult moments in most classical productions, as Tchaikovsky’s music reaches a climatic perfection that is usually hard to emulate on stage. The transformation of the Christmas Tree is one of the most sublime moments in ballet music, little wonder that it made Balanchine proclaim that “The Nutcracker IS the tree”. Morris leaves the stage dark with little Marie sitting tragically alone with her torch. This moment is tender and touching and allows for the music to flow endlessly.

The battle reminded us of Disney’s "Toy Story" when the soldiers enter the stage in full Rambo style.

However, the glory, choreographically and theatrically speaking, is the Snowflakes Waltz. Of course, one of Morris’s most distinctive features throughout the piece is his flair for exchanging gender identities in his characters. There are several occasions when one is not very sure of whether the character dancing is either a man or a woman. This blurring of gender comes on its own in the Waltz. The whole company dresses identically and performs the same steps. Perhaps, this signature feature has become one of Morris’s most influential aspects in his work and perhaps it would not be too bad to remind ourselves that it was in fact Twyla Tharp who first started consciously blurring genders in her dances.

However, it should be said to Morris’s credit that the wonderful moments he creates through this waltz puts his choreography beyond our gender expectations and just concentrates on creating one of the most magical moments in the whole ballet. It is exhilarating to see and it makes you agree with the choreographer when he said in an interview that he believed in choreography that made you feel good, and that “that is fine”. Morris provides the audience with entertainment of the highest quality.

However mortifying and “eighties” some members of the audience seemed to find the scene, I found it magnificent and daring in its form. True, it will be difficult to maintain once Morris is not there to supervise it, but given Morris’s views on the preservation of his works, this does not seem to be one of his great concerns. The scene is so over the top it is a miracle it does not get drowned in its own kitsch. It does not. When Morris provides the music with snow fireworks magically timed, he seems to remind us all of the fascination such displays had in our childhood. Morris’s triumph is in taking us back to our childhood and this is what "The Nutcracker" is all about. Childhood and its loss, the fragility that separates a child from adulthood and vice versa.

For the second act, Morris decided to take on the Nutcracker story as told by Hoffmann. Though it is a brave attempt, I do not think it works particularly well, especially after the memory of the end of the previous act. The original story is extremely complicated and surreal, especially for children. On stage it relies on too much mime and though it is theatrically effective, the telling becomes a little too difficult to follow.

Morris recommends his audience to read the synopsis before the ballet starts, but this does not seem to be a very good idea overall. The national dances become thus a journey throughout the world in which Drosselmeyer tries to find the nut that will end the spell cast on Princess Pirlipat. It makes sense, but dramatically, he has taken us too far away from Marie’s world and for a while it seems that we are watching a different ballet altogether. Ballet is not cinema where stories can be as layered as a talented director can manage. Even in traditional ballet there are moments when producers have opted for taking established choreographic numbers out because they seemed to delay the dramatic action for too long. Nureyev always hated the Peasants pas de deux in "Giselle" as he used to complain that by the end of it nobody in the theatre could remember who Albrecht and Giselle were.

The national dances are as stereotyped as they can be. Some succeed choreographically better than others. The Russian dance does succeed, but others seem to sink in as soon as the characters have shocked us with their first appearance on the stage.

The problem with Morris’s "Hard Nut" is that though competition for the First Act is weak, competition for the Second one is much tougher. There are many more strong second acts with beautiful choreography to contend against. Still, his taking on the stereotypes is daring to a degree, especially in the world we live in at the moment where it seems one always has to be apologetic about talking about a country in what is now referred to as inaccurate generalisations. It is refreshing to see somebody presenting these cliché views in such an unashamed form. I wondered, though, if the way the Arabian Dance presented its characters had something to do with its omission from the recording of the ballet.

The Waltz of the Flowers was another example of Morris at his most inventive. Following the same idea he worked on for his Snow Waltz, the company is dressed with the same costume and dances the same steps regardless of their gender. Not as strikingly beautiful as the former, the waltz is a daring reading of Tchaikovsky’s music.

Then, on to the pas de deux, and what for me is the weakest moment in all the ballet. Maybe it is difficult to see this scene without holding wonderful memories of what this music is about and how it has been choreographed previously. For me the music demands grandeur, and that is something Morris does not provide. His choreography is musical, as usual, but it does not convey Marie’s passing into maturity in the grand manner that the music describes. There is something about the gravity, almost sadness, the music conveys that speaks of an elegance and greatness that the whole of Morris’s company entering the stage at different musical cues cannot match.

Overall, Morris’s "The Hard Nut" is a most enjoyable ballet. It has weaknesses -- the pas de deux would be its greatest to me -- but it is a ballet that should be seen. Morris provides us with inventiveness, something the choreographic world badly needs, he provides us with an almost Ashtonian sense of the theatre and comedy – small wonder that Morris cites "Symphonic Variations" and "A Wedding Bouquet" as two of his favourite ballets-, and he gives us an unashamedly totally Morris sense of joy and kitsch and its never ending scenic possibilities. True, some people will find some of his ideas unacceptable, but on the other hand, and as Richard Buckle once said: “In ballet, like in all the arts, there are no rules, only risks”. Morris has taken them all.

After seeing his piece one leaves the theatre with a smile, with a feeling of childhood joy recovered. Morris once stated that “there is enough theatre work that just rubs your nose in your misery and I’m not interested in that”. Morris’s "The Hard Nut" may not be his greatest masterpiece, but there are several moments in it when it gets very close to achieving just that. And, after all, how many entirely satisfactory Nutcrackers can one count among the dozens of productions around the world?

Edited by Jeff.

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