If you love The Nutcracker but are craving something a bit different this holiday season, look no further than Company XIV's Nutcracker Rouge. The company headed by Austin McCormick recently wowed New Yorkers with its impressive production Rococo Rouge, an intelligent mesh of the Baroque and the contemporary that put the audience in a dream world where anachronisms make sense. Now, they've returned to the stage with their unique and sexy take on The Nutcracker; we caught up with lead dancer Laura Careless to find out more.
Nutcracker Rouge is back! Can you tell us about your role in this production and the role of Company XIV in the Nutcracker tradition?
For the second consecutive season and the third time total (XIV workshopped the first version of Nutcracker Rouge back in 2009) I play Marie Claire, the equivalent of Clara in The Nutcracker ballet. In our version, Marie Claire's experiences in the Kingdom of the Sweets inspire and encourage her transformation into the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Sexual awakening is often a subtext in fairy tales with female protagonists, but our show focuses upon that area of Marie Claire's development. It celebrates sexuality as it could be in a dream world where shame had no power, where we were entirely safe to explore our wildness, and glitter fell from the sky.
We are so careful to nurture and inspire the imagination of children, yet as adults our fantasies can become a source of secrecy or embarrassment. Nutcracker Rouge celebrates our adult taste for sweetness the way that the Nutcracker ballet does for children. I think it's a really glorious story to experience at this time of year. Hidden under all of our sweaters and puffy coats, our bodies crave attention and joy and sparkle more than ever, and a visit to our Kingdom of the Sweets is the adult equivalent of finding presents underneath the tree on Christmas morning!
Do you have a special memory of watching the Nutcracker as a young girl during the holiday season? Has it become a tradition for you, and do you plan on going to see a production of the Nutcracker this season?
As a child I had a video of The Royal Ballet's production of The Nutcracker that my grandmother taped from the TV onto VHS. I watched it, often dancing along, until the tape started to disintegrate!
A few years later, I became obsessed with a documentary that chronicled the life of full-time students at The Royal Ballet School, and one section of it showed them rehearsing to perform in the Royal Ballet's production of The Nutcracker. My ballet dreams came true and I was accepted to attend the school, except that the opera house was closed for major refurbishment at the time, and the scenery was too large to go on tour during the company's nomadic years. So I never performed in any production of The Nutcracker until XIV's first Nutcracker Rouge season in 2009.
I saw the ABT production at BAM a few years ago and thought it was really beautiful, charming and festive. But with our performance schedule I have very few opportunities to see live art, so I will probably miss out on other Nutcrackers this year. Unless they extend into February!
What is your favorite moment in Nutcracker Rouge?
It changes every night, depending on how I am feeling. Sometimes the innocent side of Marie Claire is hard to shed; sometimes I can't wait to become the sexy Sugar Plum Fairy. Some nights I get the most pleasure from draping myself on a spiral staircase and passively watching Turkish Delight, a slow and sensual pole duet; other nights I feel impatient to get to the foot-stomping, flamenco flavored Chocolate section. Some nights I relish my Sugar Plum solo most of all; other times it comes as a huge relief to see my Nutcracker Prince walk toward me to begin our duet.
The pleasure that never changes, yet always takes me by surprise, is my delight in my fellow cast members. They are all phenomenal performers, enchanting storytellers, specialists in what they do, and never perform any section the same way twice. More than any particular section, they are my favorite thing about this show.
A distinguishing element of Company XIV's productions is the costumes and lighting being highly detailed and elaborate. There must be a bazillion lighting cues and costumes changes! Can you take us behind the scenes and tell us about all the work that we don't see and what it's like for you as a performer?
At XIV, all backstage activity is as intricately planned and choreographed as what is happening onstage. We have only a Stage Manager and one dresser; performers take care of everything else (curtains going up and down, setting props, helping out with quick changes, operating spotlights...) Tech rehearsals are epic - not only are there many light cues to plot, there are costume changes to practice, garments and props to check and pre-set, curtain cues to assign and learn. My anxiety dreams as we get close to opening a new show are often about misplacing a costume piece, or suddenly finding myself in a new theatre where I can't find my way to the stage, or putting on the wrong costume!
On the bright side, though, this approach gives us performers a tremendous level of ownership over the show, and encourages the highest levels of teamwork and camaraderie. I find that really beautiful, and I think the audience feels it too.
I understand that Austin McCormick's process for creating works is highly collaborative, which I imagine must be exciting considering all the unique talents within the company. What is one of your most memorable collaborative experiences?
The reason that Austin is able to create such layered, atmospheric theatre combining so many artistic disciplines is that he trusts his performers. By inviting us to contribute not only our talents and skills but also our ideas, our taste, our instincts and our imagination, he is freed from micromanagement and is therefore able to operate on the extravagant scale that has become an XIV signature.
I have been working with Austin for over a decade, and was in some of his earliest pieces when we were students together at Juilliard. More than any isolated situation, the real pleasure and privilege has been the long-term experience of working closely with another artist over so many years. We have collaborated not only on the movement vocabulary of the company, but also the methods by which that vocabulary is generated, and then taught to other artists. I feel immensely proud of my contribution to that body of knowledge, and honored to have been given the opportunity to make it.
Company XIV has recently moved its home, XIV (aptly named), from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Can you tell us about the transition and what you expect for the company's future in this location?
The new venue offers us the exposure of a Manhattan location combined with the elegance of a theatre and the intimacy of a lounge atmosphere. It's the perfect environment for Austin's work. There is enough flexibility within it that we can really tailor the performance differently each night, and in the three months since we opened I have been really enjoying the opportunity to absorb and respond to the energy of each night's audience.
I have also heard from audiences that they love the experience of stepping in to the XIV world as soon as they walk in the door. You are surrounded by chandeliers, cocktails, chaises lounges, Rococo-style decor and beautiful people before the curtain rises an inch. It is a full experience of the XIV world, not 'just' a show.
We will be at this location through the end of July with a season of five shows running back-to-back, six nights a week. And then…Who knows?!
Nutcracker Rouge plays at XIV (428 Lafayette St.) through January 4.