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`The Hard Nut' Cracks the Mold

Choreographer Mark Morris brings a new twist to that holiday chestnut, Tchaikovsky's `Nutcracker' ballet

IT would be hard to come up with a less traditional, less candy-cane sweet version of "The Nutcracker" than that of choreographer Mark Morris.

His dance, however, should be welcomed by legions of adults who each year sit resignedly through moth-eaten "Nutcrackers," and by children with a taste for darker tales.

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Tonight, Morris's dance company begins two weeks of performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. Television viewers can see "The Hard Nut," as Morris's playful, revisionist ballet is called, on PBS's "Great Performances" Dec. 16 (check local listings). The dance was filmed last year in Brussels, where his company spent three years in residence at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie.

Morris and his designer/collaborator, underground-comic artist Charles Burns, tapped into the darker vein of E.T.A. Hoffmann's original tale of the nutcracker's adventures. The hard nut of the title is actually a story that family friend Drosselmeier tells the young heroine (in this version she's called Marie) about a baby princess who falls under the Rat Queen's curse and becomes hideously ugly. The only thing that will restore her beauty is a young man who can crack a hard nut open with his teeth.

This resurrected bit of the Hoffmann story does not really shed new light on the ballet, but it does move "The Nutcracker" out of the realm of vacuous fantasy toward a coming-of-age story. Marie ends up declaring her love for the nephew of Drosselmeier, even though the young man has been cursed by the Rat Queen and is now ugly himself.

In a way, Morris does for the "Nutcracker" what Bruno Bettelheim did for fairy tales; he exposes an adult tendency to water down stories for children. By taking out the scariest parts, Morris seems to be saying, adults deprive kids of a sense of direct involvement in the story.

Reassuringly, however, the characters in Morris's ballet are familiar. Marie's mother sails around the room like a large pleasure yacht, hovering over party guests and working herself into a frenzy. Marie's brother Fritz is as obnoxious as ever. He spoils the nutcracker, a present to Marie from the handsome, smooth- mannered, and mysterious Drosselmeier.

Where "The Hard Nut" differs most strongly is in its look, which is influenced more by 1960s comic books and psychedelia than Victorian children's storybooks. The set is one-dimensional, like a Roy Lichtenstein print, with swirls that call to mind '60s album covers. The grinning nutcracker looks like a cross between an Elvis doll and the kitschy Big Boy hamburger guy. And the battle of the toys is a guerilla war between G.I. Joe action figures and a mobile unit of rats.

The party where Marie is given the nutcracker is standard-issue revelry, complete with guests in bell-bottoms and halter tops shimmying and shaking to, wait a minute...that's Tchaikovsky. To traditionalists, it might appear that the dancers are moving to another score entirely, with the Russian composer's music piped in. But Morris's intent is not to deride the music or recklessly update the ballet. He gives the audience credit for knowing Tchaikovsky's music so well that it will grant him license to cho reograph in counterpoint to the composer's rhythms. And, not least of all, Morris brings his own campy humor and peppery satire to the ballet that lets all the stuffiness out. His company rescues "The Nutcracker" from the terminal ennui brought on by easy-listening versions in shopping malls.

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One criticism that could be leveled at Morris is his overuse of pantomime in some dances. He coaches his dancers in explicit movements, instead of broader implied movement, when there's no need. In "The Hard Nut," party guests ham for the audience and paint pictures in the air with their hands to signal what they are doing. After a while it looks overdone and grade-schoolish.

Viewers may take it as a challenge to try to determine the gender of various performers. To the credit of Morris's dancers, it's not an easy task. The waltz of the flowers, which traditionally includes only females of the species, has male dancers as well, some even on pointe. The choreography in this number is as lovely and balletic as anything in a classic "Nutcracker." And there are still enough chills in the dance of the snowflakes to please the strictest ballet purist. *"The Hard Nut" continues at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through Dec. 27.

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