The Hard Nut (1991)

Yup, this might be another year for versions of the Nutcracker. This one is now our favorite. If you’re going to watch a film of a ballet, skip this boring one, and this better, but still dull one and probably even this one in favor of The Hard Nut.

This production does suffer from the same problem that plagues almost all attempts to film a live performance: the person choosing the shot sometimes chooses the most boring part of the stage, or hides a transition that would actually be interesting to watch, or focuses on one character when something interesting is happening across the stage as a whole. This film version was produced for PBS in 1991, and the intro pieces with choreographer Mark Morris are clearly a bit dated.

That said, the design, story and energy of this version lifts it well above others we’ve seen.

The first act, especially, is glorious, in no small part due to the marvelous design. The style is based on the cartoonist Charles Burns; it uses strong black and white contrast, and flat, comic-like stylization in places. The whole story is transplanted to the 60’s/70’s, and I found the combination of classic Tchaikovsky with a blend of ballet, jazz and modern completely riveting.

The rats are actually scary, the ‘toy soldiers’ look a bit like GI Joes, and the gender bent/blind casting throughout adds further interest to the ensemble. The dancing is full of energy and even the minor characters have little storylines playing out, with plenty of humor. Act one closes with an exuberant, joyful Waltz of the Snowflakes, more breathtaking than any other I recall.

Then, The Hard Nut completely jettisons the boring traditional second act. In most Nutcracker versions, all the plot happens in act one, and act two is mostly just the Nutcracker Prince and Clara/Marie (Marie in this one) watching dances. Instead, this piece goes back to use more of the original E.T.A. Hoffman story. The second act shows Drosselmeyer telling the tale of how his nephew became a Nutcracker in the first place, and then gives space for romance, allowing Marie to grow up and giving the courtship a real presence.

I don’t think I’ve ever loved the Nutcracker pas de deux before the way I loved it here. It involves the whole cast, sweeping the young lovers together and apart, culminating in several incredible stage pictures showing their choice to come to each other. I actually would have been perfectly happy if the performance ended there, although the final numbers continue the story of their love. There is even quite a bit of kissing, until the show ends on an ambiguous note, and it’s not quite clear where Marie and the Prince are, only that they are together.

To sum up: we both loved this. Check it out sometime.

Bonus: NYTimes review of a 2010 production