"If you're taking your children to teach them to be polite, you're wasting your time," says Mark Morris of The Nutcracker. "Children aren't interested in that." Morris's own Nutcracker, retitled The Hard Nut after the original ETA Hoffmann tale, is coming to Sadler's Wells in London.
His version certainly isn't polite. The ballet is updated to the 1960s, with designs by the cult cartoonist Charles Burns. The Rat King is a mutant Elvis. The Snowflakes, men and women, wear silver tutus with headdresses like ice-cream cones. It's splashy and kitsch, but also tender-hearted. Morris's heroine, in her pink puff sleeves and bunny slippers, rushes to comfort the Nutcracker when he's rejected for his ugliness. Morris's "Waltz of the Snowflakes" is enchanting; the dancers run through brilliant patterns, catching the music's frosty sparkle.
"I've seen a lot of mediocre to very bad Nutcrackers, and some good ones," says Morris, 48. One he praises is Walt Disney's. "The 'Nutcracker Suite' in Fantasia has the most wonderful choreography. The Balanchine" - the revered New York City Ballet production - "is OK. I saw it recently and it didn't do much for me, to tell the truth." He thinks for a moment. "Exquisite choreography; you should see it."
Then it's back to The Nutcracker's problems. "Most first acts are very boring. The music here is full of wonderful things, things that prefigure Act II, and it's so often ignored or danced over. It's fabulous music, so pay attention to it." Morris's response to music is at the heart of his choreography. His dances are highly structured, taking formal organisation from the scores. His vocabulary is eclectic, with steps from the American modern dance tradition, folk dance, flamenco and ballet.
As a teenager in Seattle, he hoped to be a flamenco dancer and joined a Balkan folk-dance troupe. A sense of community is still part of his dances; as with the Snowflakes, his corps de ballet dances are often his finest work. In The Hard Nut, his interest in group dances even overtakes the grand pas de deux. His heroine and prince are in there, but so are most of the other characters - lifting the young couple, dancing their own steps, joining in. Why? "They all helped," Morris says. They're part of the story, and he doesn't want to leave them out.
So is the leads' duet underchoreo-graphed? "What is underchoreographed is my first question. Because I've seen a lot of minimalist modern dance which is just... just nothing. My job as a choreographer is to make things clearer. A lot of what I see I find terribly overchoreographed, all those innovative lifts where you wrap people around you like a serape." A serape? "You can write shawl. It's a Mexican wrap."
Morris says he did his own Nutcracker "because of the music; that's always what's first". He offers one other reason: "I was in Brussels, I had a big orchestra and budget at my command." Brussels was a turning point for Morris. For three years, the Mark Morris Dance Group was the resident dance company at the Monnaie theatre. It was the toughest period of his career, and the most creative. Belgian critics and audiences resented his appointment: he was American, he was loud, and he replaced the popular Maurice Béjart.
Where Béjart had big productions, ballet-trained dancers and programme notes full of philosophical speculation, Morris just made dances. You could see stories in the dancing, but he didn't often have named characters or solid plots. His company were an eclectic bunch: powerfully built women, slight men, plump or slender, all colours and all hair styles. They were superb dancers, but they didn't do six o'clock arabesques.
They were greeted with complaints, booing, terrible reviews. One Le Soir front-page headline read "Mark Morris, Go Home". But Brussels gave Morris more money, more dancers and more freedom. He made a series of great dances, including Dido and Aeneas and his masterpiece, L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.
The Hard Nut was the last of Morris's big Belgian works. After three years of bad reviews, it was praised - perhaps because this time Morris did have a big production with sets and costumes, did use ballet steps. It even had pointe shoes, for men and for women. "I wanted to refer to classical ballet in that way," Morris says. Some of his Snowflakes were on pointes - it was left to dancers to choose. In revivals, they've gone back to bare feet. "I never imagined this dance would last so long. Now it's every year and you're on pointes and you're 37, so no, we don't do it any more."
Other dances still have pointework. "I used it for certain characters - the housekeeper is on pointe, because those dances, that character, look fabulous like that." The housekeeper is danced by a man; so is the heroine's mother. Her brother, in sneakers and crew cut, is danced by a woman.
The Hard Nut wasn't the first time Morris used cross-gender casting. In Dido and Aeneas, he danced the heroine himself. His Dido wasn't female impersonation; it was always clear that this was a man in a woman's role, danced with tragic weight.
The Hard Nut has a lot more drag. How much does Morris use camp in this ballet? "It's a term I'm very hesitant to use, because it's used wrongly and it has a different meaning in American and English English. It's very often used dismissively, for something trashy, close to kitsch, not as a queer aesthetic thing. It's a homosexual term that has been co-opted wrongly by heterosexuals, and I disagree with that. You can write what you want, but I'm not going to describe my work as camp."
In the piece's national dances, Morris went straight for the stereotypes. "Like the Chinese dance. I tried to make it as racist as possible," he says cheerfully. The dancers have hair done up with chopsticks, long fingernails, long mandarin moustaches. It's the kind of thing that survives in some traditional Nutcrackers. "That kind of racist Chinoiserie isn't done in the US any more. That's why I did it."
Morris's company is ethnically diverse, and he made a point of casting the national dances nationally. "Anybody who had any kind of Asian heritage was put into the Chinese dance. Same with the Spanish dance." Performers have become associated with their Hard Nut roles. Dancers who have left the company return for the Hard Nut season - Kraig Patterson will be in London to dance the Housekeeper.
The returning dancers have become part of Morris's own Christmas tradition. "There are people who have grown up with The Hard Nut; they came when they were six and now they're 13. Kids love it, adults love it, teenagers love it. It's interesting and fun and beautiful and tender. If it were just a send-up, the bitterness of that would sink it. It isn't bitter. This is my version, my production of this music."
'The Hard Nut', Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (0870 737 7737; www.sadlers-wells.com), tomorrow to 27 NovemberReuse content