Last week’s issue of The New Yorker published a cheery little round-up of three productions of The Nutcracker you can take in this holiday season in New York. Balanchine at New York City Ballet: check. Mark Morris’s The Hard Nut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM): check. And for good measure, a supposedly “darker” new version by Alexei Ratmansky for American Ballet Theatre, opening (also at BAM) next week. Checkmate?
Yes, that would be more than enough for most cities, but conspicuously absent from the list is a fourth, and probably the most adventurous, Nutcracker-inspired production. Austin McCormick’s Nutcracker Rouge is lighting up the nights in a converted tow truck warehouse not far from the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. While less than a mile from the relative splendors of BAM, Company XIV’s gaudy and unexpected performance space beckons you off the quiet streets with a brightly lit Christmas tree and, inside, visible through big glass doors, a crowd milling about drinking champagne and sherry and eating cookies, waiting for the show to begin, excited to see what new dance/theatre extravaganza the adventurous young choreographer is about to unveil.
Based on past productions, they can be sure of a few things: it will be spectacular. The choreography will be brilliant. It will use a wide range of evocative music, from baroque to jazz.
And—unless it’s one of their family-oriented shows like last winter’s Snow White—it will be pretty darn sexy. The New York Times calls Company XIV’s work “a brainy, high-entertainment mix of music hall, cabaret, theater and dance,” but there’s almost always a powerful erotic strain, and that tastefully raunchy element is especially key to Nutcracker Rouge, which opened this past weekend and runs through January 9, 2011. In it, innocent Marie-Claire is led by a leering stepfather through a series of dance experiences in the Kingdom of Sweets before she can be united with her Nutcracker Prince and presumably live happily ever after. Call it dance/theatre; call it “meta music hall” as the Times, reaching, also once did; whatever you call it, Nutcracker Rouge is an orgy (and I use that word purposely) of burlesque showmanship, extravagant costumes, and athletically beautiful choreography.
To give you an idea: for the current production, the program lists ten performers…and nine costume interns.
McCormick founded Company XIV in 2006. With degrees from Julliard as well as the Conservatory of Baroque Dance, he has all the paper qualifications you could ask for, but his vision is what makes him unique. He took the time to answer a few questions for Blogcritics.
Where does the name Company XIV come from?
I named the company “COMPANY XIV” because I am inspired by theatre/dance/opera under the reign of Louis XIV, which united design, choreography, and music to create compelling 360-degree experiences for audiences in which they are fully immersed in the theatrical experience. My background is in Baroque Court Dance and I was trained by Regine Astier (a prominent dance historian) in Baroque conventions in both staging and design. I infuse all my productions with a Baroque sensibility.
Your choreography reflects a variety of influences, from baroque to modern. How would you describe the unique style you’ve developed out of these various strains?
My work is a unique mash-up of Classical Texts, Baroque Choreography, Eclectic Music, Pop Culture References, Opera, Burlesque, Ballet, Gender Bending, Fashion, and Theatrical Staging. When people ask what is your work like—it is a hard thing to answer. You kind of have to see it.
Would you use the term “dance/theatre” to describe Company XIV?
I don’t think the work is “dance/theatre” in the strict meaning of the term. When I hear “dance/theatre” I think of Pina Bausch and the postmodern tradition of avant-garde performance uniting text and movement. In a way, this is what we do at Company XIV but there is much more emphasis on narrative, the imagery is less abstract, more tangible. I would call the work dance/theatre because that is probably the closest categorization but it’s not totally accurate.
Your productions bring together dance, music, and theatrical storytelling. Are there certain shows, ballets, or other productions you experienced early on that inspired you to create such hybrid works rather than go in a more traditional direction as an artist/choreographer/dancer?
I was certainly inspired at an early age by my training in Baroque dance and the way that the movement served an opera or ballet in communicating spectacle and celebration. The costumes were so beautiful, lavish and detailed. I fell in love immediately. I am by no means a purist, most people with my background would probably have gone into reconstruction, but I enjoy imagining new ways to fuse the antique with the contemporary. I absolutely love the Baroque period but Missy Elliott is on my iPod. I want my shows to reflect that sensibility.
Your shows have a unique, gaudy visual aesthetic. Are there certain art or design styles that inspire it?
I work very closely with Zane Pihlstrom (Set and Costume Design) and Gina Scherr (Lighting Design) to bring the worlds of these shows to life. I spend a lot of time researching and preparing before we get into the studio. My absolute favorite publication in the world is Vogue Italia. The art direction, photography, and styling are incredibly artistic. I look a lot at fashion; I watch pop concerts to see how they light the stage, etc.
It’s obvious that “Nutcracker” is a seasonal choice, but in general, how do you pick the stories you decide to tell?
I have always wanted to put my spin on the Nutcracker story. I grew up dancing in the ballet and I fell in love with Tchaikovsky’s score. The music is passionate and gorgeous. My background is in Baroque dance and classical ballet so I imagined the show being set in the 17th century juxtaposed with contemporary movement and music. Jeff Takacs and I have worked to blend the familiar Nutcracker story with some unexpected twists and turns.
The fun in tackling a project like this is that it’s a story most audiences know; our goal is to push it in unexpected and fantastic directions. This is definitely not your traditional Nutcracker for children. Nutcracker Rouge is one part classical, one part burlesque, and one part avant-garde. The show is intended for adult audiences. If you like your hot chocolate with a little booze, this show is right for you.
We conceptualized the show to inhabit a genre we are calling “Baroque Burlesque.” It is a blending of iconic strip tease and 17th century manners. The first widespread use of the word “burlesque” was as a literary term in 17th century Italy and France, where it referred to a grotesque imitation of the dignified. Beginning in the early 18th century, the term burlesque was used throughout Europe to describe musical works in which serious and comic elements were juxtaposed or combined to achieve a grotesque effect.
Early theatrical burlesque was a form of musical and theatrical parody in which a serious or romantic opera or piece of classical theater was adapted in a broad, often risqué style that ridiculed stage conventions. We have set Nutcracker Rouge in an imagined 17th century burlesque dance hall where periods collide and genres bend.
You often combine fantasy and adult themes. Are there specific audiences you aiming to reach? How do you change your approach for different audiences (e.g. all-ages vs. adults-only?)?
I have found that adult audiences are not unlike children—we all want to be told a familiar story. The creative challenge for me is to re-imagine these stories in new ways, to take them in new directions while at the same time honoring the heart of what makes them classics in the first place.
You use a variety of music from throughout the centuries. How do you choose the music?
I chose music that I love. For me, as a choreographer, the music is at the heart of the shows. It is amazing to see how much an audience responds to a familiar song; it then gains you a bit of trust and permission to play the obscure Baroque aria next…
Do you look for certain attributes or abilities in the dancers you cast? Some don’t have traditional dancer bodies, but all are beautiful and graceful and fit their roles. What drives your selection of dancers and other casting?
I look for watch-ability, drive, and passion. I am interested in people with some life experience to bring to the table. I love seeing how a group of individuals can be an absolute ensemble but each be so uniquely different. Each project requires different types of artists and the fun is finding the perfect cast to bring it to life.
What would you be if you weren’t a choreographer?
I have serious fantasies about opening a bakery. I LOVE pastry. That might be the Part B of my career.
Tell us a little about the off-the-beaten-track space you’ve found for your company. I know that for a performance space, it has an unusual history.
I looked for a long time for the perfect creative headquarters for Company XIV, and the space in Brooklyn has been absolutely fantastic. It allows a lot of flexibility in the way that we present the shows, which is creatively exciting. It was formerly a tow truck warehouse…Now it is our home.
Does your home decor look like your sets?
More than half of the things you see onstage are from my home…Sometimes art imitates life I guess.
Page 1: Austin McCormick, by Cristina Ramirez.
Page 1, bottom: Cast members of Nutcracker Rouge, by Steven Schreiber
Page 2: Laura Careless in Nutcracker Rouge, by Steven Schreiber
Page 3: Yeva Glover (foreground) and cast members of Nutcracker Rouge, by Steven Schreiber