Naughty and Nice
If you think about it, Nutcracker lends itself quite naturally to an erotic treatment. Coming of age story, voyage of discovery, fantasy playground filled with tantalizing delights – it takes just a few steps down certain byways of the imagination to find oneself in Company XIV’s Nutcracker Rouge, currently playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre in the Village. I’ll bet this is not the first Nutcracker érotique, but it certainly makes a persuasive argument for the genre.
This is partly due to the esthetics of the show – part Marquis de Sade, part cabaret, part drag show – , so beautifully executed by Zane Pihlstrom, the company’s resident designer. Baroque costume, with its panniers, ribbons and delicately-curved heeled shoes (for men and women), lends itself particularly well to the decadent esthetics of burlesque. The corsets are so flattering, and there are so many layers to remove, so much to reveal underneath. Tapered jackets and silky gowns give way to garters, elaborate codpieces, and glittering pasties. Among other things, Nutcracker Rouge is a celebration of opulence and of the highly-developed esthetics of club culture. And it is not above striving for pure beauty for its own sake.
One of the most striking examples of this is a shadow play toward the beginning of the show. After the buxom, full-voiced Shelly Watson, Mrs. Drosselmeyer, belts out a “Russian lullaby,” the heroine, Marie-Claire, falls asleep, Nutcracker in hand. She dreams she is traversing a wintry landscape. Wide-eyed, she slips behind a screen, which, through a trick of lighting, becomes a land of moving shadows, like a lamp in a child’s bedroom. (The smoky lighting is by Jeanette Yew.) Marie-Claire’s shadow is met by that of mysterious man wearing a wolf’s mask. (There are many masks in the show, all of them marvelous.) A troupe of corseted, tutued dancers (men and women) eddies around them in a wintry gust, to the accompaniment of Vivaldi’s “Winter.” (The music in the show is a mix of jazz, show tunes, Tchaikovsky, and Vivaldi.) The scene is ravishing, in part because it retains the homespun quality of low-tech, private theatricals. The dancing is stylish – many of the dancers are Juilliard Dance graduates – but in no way spectacular. The tone is intimate, a little scary, with just a touch of grotesquerie.
Not every scene achieves this level of enchantment. But at its best, Nutcracker Rouge is imaginative, titillating, and totally beguiling. Various circus-acts – dancing in a wheel, contortionism, trapeze – are well integrated into the fabric of the show. Tchaikovsky’s “Arabian” dance, which George Balanchine famously turned into a slinky faux-exotic hoochie-koochie (with finger cymbals), is assigned to an acrobat-contortionist from Buenos Aires, Nicolás Maffey, who twists and sculpts his smooth, muscular body into painful-looking poses while wearing nothing but a codpiece and a turban. The slow, pulsing sensuality of Tchaikovsky’s “Arabian” music lends itself well to this display of physical control. Other “exotics” of the stage come to mind: Nijinsky’s Le Dieu Bleu, for one. Marie Claire, played by the wide-eyed Laura Careless (what a name!) allows herself to be drawn into a lingering kiss with the young acrobat, the first step in her sentimental education.
Other enticing passages include a flamenco dancer who enters with a flourish, wearing a bullfighter’s costume and playing the castanets. Marie-Claire, by now a worthy pupil of the decadent Mr. Drosselmeier (Jeff Takacs), her guide through this garden of earthly delights, eagerly assists in stripping down the flamenca to almost nothing. (By night’s end, Marie-Claire will engage in her own strip tease, a final rite of passage.) The “licorice” divertissement is a romp for three hissing male dominatrixes in leather straps, who tangle and mistreat one another in various ways, lorded over by a giant (Takacs) bearing a loud whip and an enormous black headdress and mask, about which I will surely have nightmares. (I couldn’t help thinking of Matthew Bourne’s tendency to drop risqué club scenes into shows like Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. Bourne could learn a thing or two about creating a louche atmosphere from Austin McCormick, the creator of Nutcracker Rouge and director of Company XIV.) And then there was the drag queen (Davon Rainey) who jumped out of a cake and did a tap routine wearing thigh-high patent leather boots with what looked like seven-inch spiked heels.
All this eventually leads to a climactic (please forgive me) pas-de-deux for Marie Claire and her half-naked prince, a not-so-subtle metaphor for deflowerment. Mixed in with the triumphant poses, overhead lifts, and swan dives, McCormick throws in a whole anthology of sexual positions. Here, Tchaikovsky’s rapturous melody becomes a metaphor for erotic awakening, and yes, maybe even love.
Nutcracker Rouge runs through Jan. 5