Broadway review

In ‘Nutcracker Rouge,’ ‘The Nutcracker’ gets a crazy, sexy makeover

The Daily Beast

December 31, 2018

Here’s a New Year’s Eve party like no other: ‘Nutcracker Rouge‘ in Bushwick, Brooklyn, features fantastic ballet, singing, and acrobatics—and a lot of fleshy, playful sexuality.

The famous New York City Ballet production of The Nutcracker—a much-cherished annual cultural fixture since 1954—closed last night. But open-minded ballet fans with no plans for tonight apart from avoiding Times Square, may want to head to Bushwick, Brooklyn, for a Gala New Year’s Eve Ball performance of Company XIV’s Nutcracker Rouge.

This show (its regular performances run until Jan. 13), should be at the top of everyone’s New Year’s treat list. Nutcracker Rouge utterly reinterprets the magic of The Nutcracker, with respectful nods to Balanchine, by deploying liberal dashes of fleshy, mischievous sexuality.

The company calls it a “baroque burlesque confection,” which director and choreographer Austin McCormick and his company (which he founded in 2006), resoundingly executes.

As soon as you walk into the venue, you are in another world, lit with blues, pinks, and reds, with seating artfully arranged in front of a simple stage. The music spans the classical strains of Tchaikovsky’s original score that traditionalists would expect to exuberant pop and rock, with all genres occasionally mashed up just as in Company XIV’s other critically hailed productions of Ferdinand: Boylesque Bullfight and Cinderella.

The performers are out among you from the outset, welcoming you, showing you to your seats and encouraging sorties to the bar. Male and female, they are all beautiful and dressed in Zane Pihlstrom’s gorgeous outfits which include underwear sprouting glittering phalluses, skin-tight leather, chest-concealing and displaying corsetry, masks, and floaty tutus.

All bodies are unapologetically celebrated in the show, which includes astonishing acrobatics and choreography on ropes and hoops as Storm Marrero’s beautiful singing fills the room. Elements of the original story (sugar plum fairy, owls, mice, soldiers, and the nutcracker that becomes a Prince) are variously present, playfully subverted, or reimagined.

Convention is not entirely jettisoned in the show: Allison Ulrich plays the show’s Clara (here renamed Marie Claire), and for much of the show she is buffeted between all the delicious strangeness on stage, including the handsome twins Ross and Nicholas Katen, who execute a particularly impressive routine on a trapeze, and then dress up as a glittering “Banana Split.” (And yes, these bananas are eventually unpeeled.)

Eventually Ulrich has the stage to herself in a gorgeous, unexpectedly traditional final section of dance. Also standing out: Michael Cunio, who sings with a magnificent, swaggering sneer; the dizzying pole-dancing skills of Lazlo Major; Marcy Richardson, who while marshaling a hoop sings Ariana Grande’s “God is a Woman” in French; and Nolan McKew who makes rope-dancing seem a beautiful extension of the body rather than a physical impossibility as it would be for many of us.

This magical, sexy mix of ballet, circus, dance, vaudeville, and music is not shorn of all The Nutcracker’s conventional narrative, but if that is what you want then this is not the show for you. If bare asses offend you, then find your New Year’s magic elsewhere. Nutcracker Rouge is a graphic but not crude celebration of sex, sexuality and the body. The flesh and bawdiness does not obscure or cheapen the command of ballet and music McCormick and his performers possess.

At the end, audience members can chat to the performers about the amazing physical and musical feats they have just witnessed; such an unusual and openhearted gesture is absolutely in the spirit of this show. It’s a pretty sure bet that McCormick and company will know exactly how to make the clocks striking 12 later tonight as crazy-beautiful as possible.