DANCE / Gingering up the dolly mixture: Matthew Bourne has given the classically tinsel Nutcracker a post-modern overhaul. Judith Mackrell reports

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ON 18 DECEMBER 1892 The Nutcracker was premiered at the Maryinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, in a performance featuring some of the great names of 19th-century ballet. Critics were a touch sniffy, but the work survived to become a classic. In 1968 Matthew Bourne danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in a production staged by the Walthamstow Cubs for their annual gang show. He doesn't remember any reviews.

What he does recall is the fact that he wore a 'sparkly costume with leaves stuck on it'. And 24 years later he is choreographing a new version of the ballet, in celebration of its centenary. The commission he has received is timely, yet not exactly straightforward. Firstly, it comes from an opera rather than a ballet company; and secondly, Bourne has never choreographed seriously for pointe shoes and tutus in his life.

Opera North was not, however, looking for a standard tinselly production. When The Nutcracker was first performed it was part of a double bill with Tchaikovsky's one-act opera Iolanthe, and though the composer expressed a strong preference for the two works remaining companion pieces, they've hardly shared a stage since. David Lloyd-Jones, guest conductor with Opera North, has long cherished a plan of reuniting them - and with Martin Duncan in place to direct the opera, scouts were sent to find a choreographer for The Nutcracker.

Coincidentally, some of them attended a performance of Bourne's recent work Town and Country, a witty, nostalgic and dreamily camp vision of a bygone England. They laughed all the way through and, despite the fact that Bourne's company, Adventures in Motion Pictures, was only six dancers strong, and despite the fact that he's definitely at the post-modern rather than the classical end of the dance spectrum, he got the job.

There are, thinks Bourne, a lot of choreographers from his kind of background (oriented towards a pedestrian, casual style of dance, deeply resistant to the myths of classical ballet) who would shrink from the idea of being associated with The Nutcracker. But Bourne - deep in rehearsal and with three weeks to go till the production's premiere in Edinburgh - says he thought it was a 'brilliant' idea and 'didn't hesitate for a second'.

Despite his contemporary movement style, despite the fact that much of his humour and imagery are so frankly rooted in the 1990s (he is particularly adept at re-casting straight themes into gay scenarios) there's a side of Bourne that yearns towards older dance models. He not only claims Lea Anderson as an influence (choreographer of The Cholmondeleys and The Featherstonehaughs and coiner of a radical, gestural dance vocabulary) but also the two Freds, Ashton and Astaire.

His style of production, too, is grounded in a vein of light entertainment and social comedy that is anathema to the high political and aesthetic seriousness of some of his contemporaries. While others agonise over their own personal dance languages, Bourne has developed a mastery of pastiche. His most recent work, Deadly Serious, was a stylistically honed and hilarious tour of Hitchcock's filmic tics, while Spitfire (1988) was an equally comic study of the posturing movement language of 19th- century male danseurs - re-cast through the bicep-flaunting poses of contemporary underwear models.

Bourne also loves a good tune, and The Nutcracker's music was one of the commission's attractions for him. He especially loves the Grand Pas de Deux in Act 2. 'It's so incredibly powerful and so incredibly corny.' And if he felt a little daunted by the task of making dance equal to the grandeur (and length) of the score, particularly without the resources of a classical dance language and dancers, he is buoyed up by the conviction that what he is doing cannot be compared with any other production.

What happens in most versions of the ballet is a jolly Christmas party, with some expensive magical effects followed by a display of pure dance. The logic of the story and the continuity of the characters don't count for much amidst the costumes, designer tricks and pretty steps. Bourne's strengths, though, have always been as a creator of dance theatre, taking ordinary body language and turning it into stylised, droll and impeccably timed dance - milking the maximum humour, pathos or sexiness out of each gesture.

He has concentrated on The Nutcracker as a story - giving it a more continuous plot and infiltrating the traditional scenes with his own wit and fantasy. Some of that fantasy is far grimmer than the original - the well-fed, cosily lit Christmas party of Act 1, for instance, has been relocated to the dreary Dickensian orphanage of Dr and Mrs Dross.

He has selected his 13 extra dancers on the basis of variety ('some are very tall so that they look like kids who've shot up and left the others behind'), and even in rehearsal the scene appears to be full of motley children, getting a little bedraggled excitement out of the Drosses' miserable festivities and looking on while the spoilt children of the family - Sugar and Fritz - flaunt their expensive presents.

Clara (the traditional heroine) is an awkward, intense and hopeful girl who's in love with one of the orphanage boys. Unwittingly, she arouses the rivalry of the horrid Sugar, and the rest of the ballet is essentially a tussle between the two of them for the boy's heart. The action, though, is advanced by a terrifying transformation scene. When Clara's Nutcracker doll magically grows to human size, he doesn't become the usual grinning soldier boy, but a huge Frankenstein-like hulk, danced by Clara's orphanage boyfriend, who is closer to seven foot than to six. As he clunks awesomely round the dormitory the children are panicked into gibbering fear - even more so when an earthquake tears apart the wall. But from here on they escape into Magic time and the first wonderful thing that happens is that the Nutcracker doll changes again into a fabulous Hunk.

Bourne gives Clara a wanton, wondering solo as she caresses the Hunk's perfectly muscled body and the two look set to be happy-ever-after as they join a charming skating party (the Snowflakes dance of the original), for which Bourne has borrowed shamelessly from Ashton's Les Patineurs. Sugar appears, however, and does the dirty - gliding off with the Hunk under Clara's nose, then feigning a turned ankle so that he's forced to carry her away in his arms.

In Act 2, wedding bells are ringing for Sugar and the Hunk in the Kingdom of Sweets. Dr and Mrs Dross (every character reappears in some guise or other) have given their permission and Clara is desperate. All the national dance characters that normally fill this act have become wedding guests / Sweetie people who help and hinder Clara's attempts to get her man. In many Nutcrackers the national dances are disappointingly limp exercises in choreographic exotica, but Bourne has gingered them up wonderfully. The Spanish dance is still very Spanish 'because it's so strongly in the music'. But it is now performed by liquorice people in ebony black and it's an unusually earthy, dirty number. The Arabian dance, normally performed by a bendy woman in a bikini, becomes a Knickerbocker Glory dance performed by a doped-up, evilly over-sexed man who, says Bourne 'is going to be sort of dripping and melting a bit'. The Trepak has been updated from a Cossack dance to a trio of head-banging, bovver-boy Gobstoppers. And the Grand Pas is now a blatant piece of foreplay, danced by Sugar and the Hunk until Clara finally steps in and reclaims her heart's desire.

Funny and fresh as The Nutcracker looks in rehearsal, it will not please everyone. Some of the larger ballet companies have expressed unease at yet another production entering the circuit, and some purists may feel that Bourne is taking unacceptable liberties. But others will see him making a long overdue challenge to the aura of sanctity that has always surrounded the classics. Shakespeare and Verdi are constantly being re-interpreted and re-dressed, so why not Petipa and Ivanov? And while Bourne is not out to mock the original (he's very fond of it) he feels it is resilient enough to withstand radical change.

He is also relishing working on a scale that AMP has never before approached. Even though this Nutcracker will come much cheaper than most, the set (designed by Anthony Ward) costs three times AMP's annual grant, and Bourne will have the thrill of working with a full, live orchestra in some major theatres. 'This isn't,' he beams, 'the kind of commission that you ever turn down.'

The Nutcracker is at the King's Theatre, Edinburgh, on 26, 28 and 29 August (Edinburgh International Festival box office: 031-225 5756)

(Photograph omitted)