No sweeties for the bubble-gum fairy

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Indy Lifestyle Online
NOBODY expected Mark Morris's reworking of the Nutcracker to be a chocolate-box affair. "More bubblegum than sugar plum" was his own line on The Hard Nut, conceived with Charles Burns, the American horror cartoonist; and those few who brought children along to the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, in the traditional hope of nurturing an appetite for ballet, may well have wished they hadn't. There are plenty of lip-smacking moments, but like chewing gum, it leaves you still feeling hungry.

The opening bars of the score sound the alarm. No scurrying of excited infants on stage, no flurry of Christmas decorations. For many long minutes all we see is three bored brats lounging in front of the telly. When the party finally gets going it is a decidedly adult affair, the guests tricked out in zany Seventies gear and more intent on groping each other than playing the polite games devised by the plump hostess. How Morris manages - dares - to set a disco bump'n'grind to Tchaikovsky is a matter for wonder.

Even before the midnight battle between the nutcracker doll and the mutant rats (the only recognisable part of Morris's plot), the heroine, Maria, has troubles. In her hair-band and pastel party frock (and lumbered, what's more, with decidedly fat legs), she is out of the running in the romantic stakes. Her trendy elder sister has all the fun. This production, if it has a serious purpose, homes in on the anxieties of puberty, using the original Hoffmann story with its darker resonances rather than the familiar sugared-up plot devised by Petipa.

The obvious danger in altering the story is that the audience gets lost, and Morris's version doesn't help by deserting the linear in favour of a Jungian flinging together of dream images. Instead of travelling to Sweetieland with her nutcracker prince, Marie gets a bedtime story from Dr Drosselmeyer, the toymaker - a complicated tale about a baby princess, disfigured in her cot by a vengeful rat, and eventually restored to beauty by the suitor who succeeds in cracking the Hard Nut.

Drosselmeyer's tale of travelling the world in search of this thing neatly introduces the national dances of Act II - a high point of colour and fun - but leaves the heroine entirely out of the picture until she butts in to declare her love for the nutcracker, and performs the "Sugar Plum Fairy" number as a shyly flirtatious come-on. Morris is masterly in charting such delicacies of Tchaik- ovsky's score, but fudges the big moments, which cry out for soaring figurations that are simply outside his vocabulary, eclectic though it is.

For wit and flair The Hard Nut has cracked it; in terms of dance it is disappointingly slight. One exception is Morris's treatment of the snowflake dance that ends Act I. Disney's animators could not have conceived a sequence more graphically explicit of the score, with streams of silver-clad figures criss- crossing the stage spraying fistfuls of powdery snow at every perfectly timed leap.

The expectation of seeing dancers dancing was realistically lower at the Edinburgh Playhouse for Nelken (Carnations) by Pina Bausch, the only living choreographer who can justifiably claim (if she weren't so modest) to have influenced a generation of important European theatre directors. The pre- publicity was irresistible: a stage carpeted with real flowers, stuntmen, snarling Alsatian dogs ... The event was both less and more than expected. Bausch's images have a way of repeatedly sneaking up on your consciousness, naggingly full of new relevances and meanings.

Nelken - first performed in 1962 - is about power and fragility, dominance and submission. The permanent presence of thousands of pale pink carnations, not scattered but actually springing up from the stage, imbues every scene with ineffable tenderness and, on a more practical level, makes the performers tread very carefully. The piece melds dialogue, psycho-games and fatiguingly repetitive movement into surreal snatches of dream, or nightmare. In Bausch's hands men in silky frocks don't look silly, but vulnerable; hunky men pratfalling onto a table isn't funny, it's menacing; a child's game of grandmother's footsteps turns to giant political metaphor, and Gershwin's song, "The Man I Love" becomes a hymn to the human soul when performed in deadpan sign language.

At one point, exasperated, a performer addresses the audience "What is it you want, then? You want dance?" And he obligingly dashes off a circuit of whipping turns and some fiendish entrechats. Funnily enough, we realise with a jolt, real dance is the very last thing we want.

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