Radical departure from convention

Edinburgh Festival; Dance; MARK MORRIS DANCE GROUP Edinburgh Festival Theatre
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The Independent Culture
Like other Nutcrackers, Mark Morris's The Hard Nut depends on Tchaikovsky's near-perfect score: music that prompts, describes and gloriously intensifies action and gesture. But in every other way, Morris's production marks a radical departure from the period frills and conventional, unimaginative fussiness of most Nutcrackers, even dispensing with the "Sugar Plum Fairy". Its design, based on the comic-book art of Charles Burns, is all flat, monochrome simplicity, animated by the colourful, exaggerated cartoon characters of Morris's mischievous revision.

The opening scene - the Stahlbaum family's Christmas Eve party - is a white, cardboard cut-out lounge: it's the 1970s rather than the 19th century. The image on the television screen is of an electric log fire - one woman does a double take, then casually warms her hands in front of it. Appallingly- behaved guests sport the hideous garb of an era that is now generally acknowledged as a fashion disaster.

In place of the usual sedate group dances, we are treated to bump-and- grind routines of hilarious lewdness. There's non-stop partner-swapping and much sexual harassment. Morris, arguably the most obscene visitor, returns from the bathroom with toilet-paper trailing from one of his boots and eventually collapses in a drunken stupor.

The hot flushes and nervous jitters of Peter Wing Healey's strapping Mrs Stahlbaum aren't helped by the antics of her sulky, teenage daughter, Louise (Tina Fehlandt), an uncontrollable flirt whose father (Barry Alterman) is resigned to pulling her away from the succession of men at which she either leers or throws herself. Clarice Marshall, Morris's original Marie, when he created the work four years ago in Brussels, returns to the role, conveying Marie's inate goodness vividly as the girl's transition to womanhood, assisted by her real-life Nutcracker, Drosselmeier's nephew (William Wagner), whose duet with his uncle is one of Morris's most heart-rending and intriguing interpolations.

But horror pervades this Nutcracker. Incorporating (and taking its title from) Hoffmann's Story of the Hard Nut, in which Princess Pirlipat's beautiful face is disfigured by mice, the work offers a more incisive reading of the entire and convoluted tale, giving it a structural clarity and entertainment value that are well matched by Burns' concept, duly enforcing Morris's view that The Nutcracker is scarey stuff.

Artifice vies with nature throughout, and Morris triumphs handsomely in both fields, making the "Waltz of the Flowers" a dizzying fertility rite for both sexes; and updating the national dances to feature a shifty trio of Arabs whose cover-up extends to sunglasses as well as yashmaks, and a French quartet equipped with props which include a whip and a baguette.

Cross-dressing and gender-bending allow for such delights as men in frocks and pointe shoes in both the Flower and Snowflake dances, and for Kraig Patterson's mincing housemaid whose pointework technique - all bent knees and unyielding metatarsals - is more an endearing characteristic than a shortcoming. In short, The Hard Nut leaves you wishing it was Christmas every day.

n Until 2 September