Red smoke curls above the audience at the Minetta Lane Theatre. Sultry jazz music oozes from some hidden speaker while a beautiful woman in a Marie Antoinettestyle dress floats like a ghost, up and down the aisles. There are ropes and hoops hanging from above the stage, and a giant, golden, curtained frame waits to be drawn open, revealing the dark secrets of Company XIV’s Nutcracker Rouge.
This neo-Baroque burlesque and circus spectacular is the brainchild of choreographer Austin McCormick, whose internationally renowned work has been presented everywhere from The Kennedy Center to TLC’s The Cake Boss. McCormick is an alumnus of Julliard, has danced for the Metropolitan Opera Ballet of New York and is a graduate of the conservatory of Baroque Dance. While the choreography of Nutcracker Rouge draws from elements of both ballet and Baroque, its extreme athleticism and use of almost hyper-extended and suspended movement articulate the dramatic and erotic themes of this tantalizing reimagining of the Christmas classic.
Inspired by the original E.T.A. Hoffman story, McCormick’s leading female character is named Marie Claire, a quite smart combination of Hoffman’s Marie Stahlbaum and the more popularly conceived Clara. Marie Claire (Laura Careless) is the beautiful, corseted specter seen wandering the aisles before the show. Her face is painted pale while giant red curls are heaped upon her head in the form of a great powdered wig. She is the special guest of the rambunctious Drosselmeyer, a much less evil Thénardiers, but with a similar kind of rowdy flair.
Jeff Takacs’s Drosselmeyer is dressed like an 18th century pirate; a large black feather protrudes from his black, velvet hat. He is our host for the evening, speaking directly to the audience about concessions and the frigid weather, while seamlessly reverting back to leading Marie Claire through his wild world of sex and of the show. She is the diva opera singer, always ready with a song to egg on the circus artists and dancers into a while orgylike frenzy, or slow things down with the deep crooning of her beautiful, jazzy voice. She too interacts with the audience, walking through the aisles and gently caressing eager men and women with her velvet-gloved hand. She has at least four costume changes, each more glamorous than the last: sequins and fur caress her curvaceous frame while long, colored feathers sprout from even more glamorous headdresses. Her role is similar to Drosselmeyer’s, presenting each re imagined dance sequence, though she is much less rude and crass..
Although Nutcracker Rouge is not technically a ballet, it offers quite impressive dance to satisfy the pallet of those used to a more Baryshnikovian interpretation. McCormick’s reimagining of Drosselmeyer’s puppet dance is a fantastic, erotic contortion. Instead of painted dolls en pointe, dancers and circus performers appear in tiny corsets and silk Rococo heels (some over four inches tall). Incredibly muscular men in stockings and Shelly Watson’s Mrs. Drosselmeyer is quite possibly one of the best parts garter belts fouette in Venetian masks and powdered wigs while tied to silk ropes. A male dancer arabesques while wearing seven inch heels of which even Lady Gaga would be wary.
A masked woman crawls out of a vintage suitcase, and stretches her legs – right over her back. Drosselmeyer and Marie Claire wield the strings with ravenous delight, their faces too eager to be innocent. These grotesquely beautiful reinterpretations of Petipa’s ballet is what makes Nutcracker Rouge so compelling. The Chinese Tea dancers are gorgeous, stripping ballerinas. The Arabian Coffee dancer is an impeccably toned acrobat and circus performer, and the Russian Candy Cane dancer is a woman spinning endlessly within a giant hula hoop. McCormick even adds his own memorable characters, such as the Liquorish Boys: three statuesque dancers in BDSM gear, twirling, jumping and backflipping while being whipped by the bondage-clad Drosselmeyer himself.
Perhaps the most creative and beautiful reimagining is the Spanish Hot Chocolate dance, performed by Marisol Cabrera. There’s something about the clicking of castanets and the raw sound of heel upon wood that sets the heart racing. Cabrera performs a loose Zapateado while wearing a long, golden flamenco skirt, a bolero jacket, glimmering nipple pasties, a headdress covered in roses and a large, Spanish mustache. Her percussive stomps send the dust on the stage whirling. She whips her twirling skirt off to reveal bolero pants and a glimmering crotch. A beautiful hermaphrodite Flamenco dancer? It doesn’t get better than that.
Costume designer Zane Pihlstrom pulls out all the stops for this performance. Every single costume is dreamlike (wet or otherwise), intricate and absolutely stunning. Pihlstrom takes inspiration both from delicate Rococo styles and somewhat Gautier-esque skeletal frames (there were several references to Madonna through the show).
There is no innocence in the land of Nutcracker Rouge. The delicate romance present in traditional renderings of the Nutcracker – that sweet and powerful pas de deux- gives way to brute force, sweat and carnal desire. Company XIV raises the freezing winter temperatures in this sexually charged festive burlesque.