The Hard Nut
The Hard Nut is a ballet set to Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker and choreographed by Mark Morris. It took its inspiration from the comic artist Charles Burns. That art is personal and deeply instilled with archetypal concepts of guilt, childhood, adolescent sexuality, and poignant, nostalgic portrayals of post-war America. Morris enlisted a team of collaborators to create a world not unlike that of Burns’ world, where stories take comic book clichés and rearrange them into disturbing yet funny patterns.
Morris turned to Adrianne Lobel to create sets that would take Hoffmann's tale out of the traditional German setting and into Burns’ graphic, black and white view of the world. With these immense sets and scrims, lighting designer James F. Ingalls created a dark world within retro 1960s suburbia and costume designer Martin Pakledinaz created costumes that helped bring to life Burns’ world, described as being "at the juncture of fiction and memory, of cheap thrills and horror." The last of 10 pieces Mark Morris created during his time as Director of Dance at the National Opera House of Belgium, the piece was his most ambitious work to date.
The Hard Nut premiered on 12 January 1991 at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, just short of the 100th anniversary of the creation of Tchaikovsky's classic score. Shortly after the premiere, Mark Morris Dance Group returned to the United States, having finished their three-year residency at the Monnaie, but the Monnaie seemed the most fitting stage to film the production so the company returned six months later with film crew in hand for encore performances in Belgium's national opera house.
While resetting the ballet in a 1950s style American town, including a very subtle homosexual subtext, costuming it garishly and making the characters rather cartoonlike (the toy soldiers are an army of G.I. Joes), the overall plot of The Nutcracker was rather faithfully followed, to the point of including a pantomime version of "The Story of the Hard Nut," the tale-within-a-tale of E.T.A. Hoffmann's "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" in Act II, to explain how Drosselmeyer's nephew was turned into the Nutcracker. This section is usually not included, not even in Tchaikovsky's original version. Princess Pirlipat is turned into a pig-snouted creature as a baby by the vengeful Mouse Queen, and Drosselmeyer searches the world for a way to break the spell, thus ushering the famous Danses caracterisques of Act II. The only one able to do so is Drosselmeyer's nephew, who, after biting a hard nut, breaks the spell placed on Princess Pirlipat, but is turned into a Nutcracker. Princess Pirlipat promptly rejects him, whereupon Clara (here called Marie) declares her love for him and the spell on Drosselmeyer's nephew is broken.
Alterations from the traditional presentation
The Sugar Plum Fairy is eliminated as in the Baryshnikov Nutcracker, and Marie performs all of her dances. Her relationship with Drosselmeyer's nephew becomes overtly romantic at the end, with the two of them French kissing all through the "Final Waltz" which, in this version, becomes a duet rather than an ensemble piece. However, in comparison to the Matthew Bourne Nutcracker and the highly controversial Maurice Bejart one, the sex and the homosexual overtones are soft-pedalled.
In the US the film aired on PBS stations in 1991 as part of the Great Performances series.
The Hard Nut was released on VHS and Laserdisc in 1992 and on DVD in 2007. The DVD extras include "The Arabian Dance," segment which had been cut from the film due to time constraints, and Mark Morris's reflections on the original and ongoing productions of his version of the ballet.
- Title card on the DVD extra