Muscular boys in glittering G-strings and high heels dominate the stage in Nutcracker Rouge, Company XIV's baroque variation on the holiday ballet favorite, now playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre after a 2011 Brooklyn premiere. Imagine if Tchaikovsky were alive today and writing for Kazaky and you get pretty close to the feeling of this show. Pretty Close, but not exact. That's because director/choreographer Austin McCormick has added so many idiosyncratic ingredients to this theatrical confection. It's beyond categorization. At the risk of sounding like Stefon, this show has everything: Vivaldi, circus performance, S&M, The French Revolution. These are all compelling elements on their own, but can too many good things in one show turn bad? Rather than wowing me with delicious stage spectacle, Nutcracker Rouge gave me a theatrical tummy ache with its unfocused pastiche, which ultimately devolved into a heavy-handed sexualization of the holidays. It isn't sexy. (Think Miley Cyrus on the VMAs, but wearing a Santa hat.) The secret to happy indulgence really is moderation. The secret to good burlesque? Restraint.
Loosely based on E.T.A. Hoffmann's story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" and Tchaikovsky's subsequent ballet The Nutcracker, Nutcracker Rouge is the story of Marie-Claire (Laura Careless), a young woman just itching to break free from her frilly dress. She sees her opportunity when tricorne-wearing libertine Drosselmeyer (Jeff Takacs) and his wife Mrs. Drosselmeyer (the brassy and thoroughly captivating Shelly Watson) show up with some boy toys in Japanese bondage gear. After receiving a toy nutcracker, Marie-Claire goes on a harrowing journey through the dark forest while pursued by stags prancing about to Vivaldi's "Winter." She ends up in the Kingdom of the Sweets, where scantily clad performers representing cherries, chocolate, and candy canes do amazing tricks to reorchestrated sections of Tchaikovsky's score.
Or sometimes they don't: Drosselmeyer cracks his whip to Vivaldi's Concerto for Four Violins in B Minor while three "Licorice Boys" in leather masks dance around and slam one another into the stage in an erotically charged S&M ballet. Marie-Claire cedes to the hedonism of the night and emerges from the audience-wearing sparkly pasties. Like Sandy at the school fair, she needs a man and has her heart set on a nutcracker prince in a Christmas-ornament dance belt. They dance their final, high-flying duet in celebration of her newfound Christmas sexiness. God bless us, everyone.
So what is this crazy train all about? Is it a comment on the consumerist culture that explodes at this time of year? Is it a big bear hug to sexual liberalism? Don't try to make sense of it. One does not attend Nutcracker Rouge in search of coherence.
One attends Nutcracker Rouge to see very attractive and nearly naked dancers perform amazing feats of strength. What little clothes they do wear are astounding and expensive-looking works of art by Zane Pihlstrom, who also designed the set to look like a dusty opera-house attic. The gilded justaucorps and sequined fishtail dresses worn by Mr. and Mrs. Drosselmeyer (they seem to become bigger and more fabulous with each passing number) add to the extravagance. Too bad it's so hard to see any of it. Jeanette Yew's dark and moody lighting, meant to conjure a restoration-era strip club, has the adverse affect of obscuring much of Pihlstrom's breathtaking design (and the equally breathtaking performers) in shadow. There's nary a defined set of abs or flexed glute to be seen in this boudoirlike environment.
Ironically, this dim lighting turns out to be the sexiest thing about Nutcracker Rouge. The titillation of burlesque comes in what the performers are not showing you. It is a tease, a form of theatrical foreplay. You show a little, and then take it all back, always with the utmost grace. Really well-done burlesque requires a subtle hand. Despite his awesomely athletic choreography, McCormick has yet to develop this crucial lighter touch. Simulated dry-humping and an exaggerated plushie phallus (as worn by Mr. Drosselmeyer during the can-can scene) are decidedly unsubtle elements, making this event far less sexy than it would like to be.
But that's the hazard of the season, I suppose. Christmas is not sexy. It is loud and bright and too full of turkey to be sexy. The harder this show tried to convince me otherwise, the clearer that point became.