'The Hard Nut': Sadler's Wells, London

Mr Whippy and an armless Barbie: that's the way to crack a nut!
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The Independent Culture

Before the Nutcracker season-proper cranks into action it's good to be reminded of Mark Morris's version. First shown in Brussels 13 years ago but only now receiving its English premiere, it has been the template for almost every British Nutcracker since. The comic-book brashness, the social comedy, the sending up of family Christmases in general (at this party, to everyone's horror, the articulated robot rips the arm off Barbie), showed a way forward for ballet directors keen to cut down on sugar while honouring Tchaikovsky's score. Yet none of the imitators, conscious or not, has managed the balancing act with as much verve, wit, or arresting beauty as Morris in The Hard Nut.

Beauty is key. The American choreographer has a well-honed instinct for when he can get away with flouting Tchaikovsky's promptings, and when to soar with him. The Snowflakes waltz that brings the first half to its climax begins as a bit of a joke. In the first flurries of flute and clarinet, men in silver tutus and Mr Whippy hats prance barefoot in a weird amalgam of ballet and disco, campily tossing confetti on each accent of the score. It's funny, and gets laughs. But laughter turns to awe as Morris streams on more dancers and more confetti in a sustained crescendo of intersecting diagonals and co-ordinated blizzard. It's a perfect counterpart to the music's sky rockets and one of the great dance moments of the 1990s.

His dances aren't classical, yet Morris finds ingenious ways to mimic ballet's airborne grandeur, most memorably in the ecstatic Act II duet in which Marie and her Nutcracker hero are hoist aloft by what looks like the entire cast and swooped about like bi-planes meeting in the air over Farnborough. Elsewhere, Morris scotches expectation with real nerve. His transformation scene leaves little Marie stranded in the dark holding a torch. The big Act I love music happens over a scene change.

Yet there's nothing difficult about Morris's approach, nor even much that you wouldn't want your granny to see. Despite the cross-dressing and coke-snorting at the Stahlbaum's party, it stays close to the traditional story while relocating amusingly to suburban New Jersey. Inspired by the satirical world of cartoonist Charles Burns, Adrianne Lobel's sets are drawn in thick black lines and the costumes are fun exaggerations of the 1960s. Morris himself puts in a cameo as a drunken lech poured into tight velvet flares. Marie, not yet allowed a mini skirt like her sister, sports a pink puffball and bunny slippers.

Like others since, Morris bulks up the second act with material from the original Hoffmann story - an odd tale about a rat that disfigures a Princess in her pram, and the worldwide search for the special nut that will restore her (Morris's cue for the national dances, quirkily done). The purpose of all this is to show Marie's kind heart. At the point when the newly beautiful princess rejects the ugly Nutcracker who saved her, Marie steps into the story and offers herself to him instead, at which moment, Beauty and the Beast-style, his gurning mask falls away and she has herself a prince. Too bad this crucial moment was fudged on opening night. By now I trust the business will be clearer.

The casting, as always with Morris, is a joy. Lauren Grant, at 45, turns in the most touching 12-year-old I've seen, and John Heginbotham's elegant Mrs Stahlbaum - a ballerina manqué you almost hear humming the tunes - elevates drag to a very refined art. The Royal Ballet Sinfonia, under Robert Cole, gives as good an account of the score as you will hear this winter.


'The Hard Nut': Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (0870 737 7737), to Sat