A list of holiday traditions in New York runs longer than my arm, but two are essential. One is New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker, which always conjures seasonal spirit, even in annual viewings. Another is Doug Elkins’ Fraulein Maria at The Public Theater’s Joe’s Pub, which couldn’t be more of a contrast, but which left me ridiculously giddy. At heart, they sum up the best of the city at holiday time. Any time, really.
The first act of George Balanchine’s Nutcracker, to Tchaikovsky’s iconic score, shows that it was created in a different era. Essentially one long family party scene ending with a frothy snowflake ballet, it shows a patience for details and an indulgence in small children that wouldn’t be made nowadays. Balanchine’s focus on Christmas as a kids’ holiday is clear when you realize how incidental the adults are. Of them, only the mysterious Herr Drosselmeyer has any import, and that’s because he bears lavish (and simple) gifts, thereby dispensing power. But the real scene stealer always has been the enormous tree that never stops growing, making even the multi-headed Mouse King look tiny. Rouben Ter-Arutunian’s amazing set also includes snow-laden pine bowers, charming and ominous at once and an enchanting setting for the human and artificial snowflakes besetting the stage.
Act II is a dance travelogue, more gifts being offered, that unspools after Marie watches Fritz do a mime recap. Little angels criss-cross the stage. Nationalities/attributes are represented by various food stuffs. Spain/chocolate, China/tea, Arabia/coffee, high energy/candycanes, Germany/marzipan (led by the dynamic Tiler Peck), grace/dewdrop. (If anyone knows what dewdrop—not a food—stands for, speak up. Obviously I don’t.) I saw the incomparable Maria Kowroski as the Sugarplum Fairy and the serviceable Charles Askegard as the Cavalier.
All great tradition, but for a real adrenaline boost, go to Fraulein Maria. It’s performed on the tiny stage at Joe’s Pub, part of the Dancemopolitan Holiday Series, produced by DanceNOW NYC. Elkins’ revue uses the original recorded songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein, to which he set dances. He’s cast several Marias, including the powerhouse Arthur Aviles and the vibrant Meghan Merrill. Elkins’ style is like cleaning out the dance world’s attic for a big old yard sale—modern, club, hip hop, ballet. The hip hop stuff adds a tangy zest to the hummable score, especially in the sublime “Do Re Mi.”
Elkins, with co-directors Barbara Karger and Michael Preston, do their resourceful best with sheets and tiny fake trees to make a facsimile of the Alps. The amazing dancers do a stellar job simply not falling off the stage, but the energy and dedication they radiate dutifully warm the heart. Not to mention they’re all pretty fierce dancers. Elkins’ solo (“Climb Ev’ry Mountain”) is a highlight, a condensed version of his scatalogical choreography that peaks on the line “follow ev’ry rainbow” as he mimes lobbing a rainbow basketball shot. A brilliant visual pun in this revue that only premiered in 2006, but which already feels like a necessary holiday celebration.
Photos: (top) George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. Photo: Paul Kolnik, (bottom) Fraulein Maria. L-R: Lisa Niedermeyer, Meghan Merrill, Lindsey Dietz-Marchant. Photo: Steven Schreiber