NEW YORK — “And now,” announces the bare-chested man in garters and a thong, gesturing offstage with his whip, “please welcome the Sugar Plum Fairy.”
You might have heard of her — the twinkly ballerina star of the “The Nutcracker,” which delivers an annual dose of Tchaikovsky and tulle to families across the country this time of year. But she looks a little different on this particular stage, which is rather small, draped in velvet and ringed with an over-21 crowd sipping absinthe or perhaps a tequila cocktail whose name disparages our current president. (It’s the bar’s top seller.) This happy audience is watching the dance troupe Company XIV perform “Nutcracker Rouge.”
Company XIV describes itself as baroque-burlesque. The Tchaikovsky is played nice and slow on saxophone, and when the ballerina leaps onstage, the tassels on her pasties swirl furiously. She spins and rolls around on the floor with the luxurious self-contentment of someone wallowing in a scented bath. The Nutcracker Prince, wearing a satin waistcoat, G-string and heels, joins her, and she jumps on his back like a cat. Glitter flies off her pumps.
He swings her between his legs, swoops her up to the ceiling. The audience cheers and whistles. The Tchaikovsky melody fades, and Drosselmeyer — he’s the whip-wielding ringmaster — croons the Elvis Presley lullaby “Cotton Candy Land” in a soulful, suggestive baritone, every word dripping double-entendres:
Sandman’s comin’, yes he’s comin’/ He’ll take you, by the hand/ And you’ll ride upon, a big white swan/ In cotton candy land . . .
This is a wild place to be watching a reinvention of one of the world’s best-known ballets, and it’s one with lessons that conventional dance companies might heed. A year ago, Company XIV graduated from being gig-based dancers, with no fixed address, to a year-round outfit with a home. It’s in an industrial space in the graffiti-adorned Bushwick section of Brooklyn. For this show, there’s candlelight everywhere, and stunning barelegged men and women with lots of eye makeup walking around in furs and heels.
You hang your coat in an antique armoire and find your ticket, wedding-reception-style, on a table full of name-card holders, and one of those impressive, fur-clad creatures whisks you past the crowd and the two bars, winding through an atmosphere of shadowy, artfully ruined decadence, and finally landing you, gracefully, at your seat.
Champagne on ice may or may not be waiting there, depending on your ticket price. The intimate, 175-seat theater is so crammed with style, Marlene Dietrich would be right at home. Chandeliers, carousel horses and gilded mirrors are aglow in flickering light. Your escort, like all the others, is one of the company’s dancers, which is why he moves with such panache. Under his unfastened coat, he’s wearing his costume, a fetishistic composition of corset, lacing and strategic sequins.
So much for the costumes. “Nutcracker Rouge” is not about the costumes. It’s not about the skin, either. I know you don’t believe this, but bear with me.
It’s about the love.
“It’s a beautiful evening, an inclusive evening,” says Brad Senatore, who’s in the audience with his husband, Amit Rakhit, and friends from Boston. He and Rakhit live in Manhattan, which Senatore points out as a sign of their devotion to Company XIV. They’ve followed it all the way to Bushwick!
“It’s bringing a bit of fresh air as an antidote to Trump, you know what I mean?” he says.
“It celebrates diversity, takes away stigmas,” says Nika Brodsky, who brought her best friend, Elena Yakovleva, to the show to celebrate Yakovleva’s 50th birthday. They both live in Brooklyn. “The United States is very closed now. But this provides — just openness. Openness. It normalizes the differences.”
Brodsky also is a connoisseur of burlesque, which, she acknowledges, “can be a little cheesy.”
She nods at the stage. “But they are artists.”
This is clear from the first moments, when identical twin brothers perform a riveting pole dance that has such a quality of floating ease, it’s like a sideways ballet. The performers are obsessive about form. The company’s founder, director and choreographer Austin McCormick, is a Juilliard School graduate with a background in ballet, French baroque court dancing, and the modern-dance techniques of Martha Graham and José Limón. He recently choreographed “Samson et Dalila” for the Metropolitan Opera. For Company XIV, he hires only classically trained performers.
For instance, Allison Ulrich, one of the leading dancers, is Juilliard-trained and a former Cirque du Soleil gymnast. She performs the role of the young heroine, Marie-Claire, who matures into a grown woman — the Sugar Plum Fairy — by the end of the evening. The cast of 16 dancers and singers are also trained in circus arts: trapeze, aerial and various wheels. Marcy Richardson is an opera-singing aerialist who spins upside down in her hoop while singing Ariana Grande’s “God Is a Woman” — in French. Laszlo Major, from the all-male drag troupe Les Ballets Trockadero dances beautifully in his bondage gear while on pointe or on a pole.
Storm Marrero, a plus-size singer from Puerto Rico with generous hips and a bluesy, room-filling voice to match, shares emcee duties with Drosselmeyer (Michael Cunio); her fleshly abundance is lyrically expressive of the broad, accepting aesthetic of the show.
Body positivity is as much a part of it as the jeweled thongs and double-sided sticky tape (the modesty-protecting secret behind the pasties). Everyone’s glutes are celebrated, but never in a raunchy way. There’s a respectful vibe here. The theme of the show is Marie-Claire’s erotic maturity, and she’s gently shepherded along by an array of “sweets,” characters who model various aspects of sexuality, self-confidence and love.
It’s true to the spirit of the original ballet, McCormick says. The traditional ballet “is the story of an uncle — a kind of creepy uncle, let’s be honest — giving a little girl a toy that ignites her fantasy dream world,” he says. “The story is about an awakening. In our world, we’re choosing to make that a sensual awakening.”
So when Marie-Claire meets the Turkish Delights, for instance — these are the twins Nicholas and Ross Katen, on aerial hoops — they cradle her as though she’s a treasure. Marrero is growling the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins song “I Put a Spell on You” as the threesome swings and spins, making elaborate formations by linking feet, knees and hands with a solid core of trusting nonchalance.
(The twins appear again as bananas, peeling off their costumes and tap dancing in thigh-high stockings to the 1950s McGuire Sisters song “Banana Split.” There is no complete nudity in the show, but no one younger than 18 is admitted.)
McCormick, 35, grew up in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he studied ballet and baroque court dance, taking private lessons from Regine Astier, a renowned authority on the dances of 17th-century France. He founded Company XIV, named after Louis XIV, the world’s most famous baroque dancer, in 2006.
“There was always something sensual within my style,” McCormick says, “and also an element of taking costumes off and putting them on, an element of striptease. I wasn’t applying the word ‘burlesque’ then, but the seeds were there.”
The company presents other shows throughout the year, mostly drawn from ballets and familiar stories — recently, “Ferdinand — Boylesque Bullfight,” from the children’s book about the peace-loving bull — but “Nutcracker Rouge” is its most popular. This is its seventh year.
In past seasons, it has taken a few weeks before shows start selling out. This year, “sales have been out-of-the-gate incredible,” McCormick says. “It’s become sort of political.”
What you feel in “Nutcracker Rouge” is a style of life that answers a desire for connection. It’s inescapable. This performance succeeds where more formal, traditional concert dance performances fail. It doesn’t hold you at a distance; it pulls you in. It’s unusually immersive, from the moment you walk in and the dancers themselves greet you. At each of the two intermissions (selling drinks is “a huge part of our business model,” McCormick says), they also serve as bartenders, and they mingle and pose for selfies afterward. As Marrero saunters down the aisle, she might affectionately stroke an audience member’s ear; at one point Richardson sees a cellphone pop up in the audience (photos are encouraged) and rushes into the seats to pose for it.
The appeal here doesn’t rest entirely or even primarily with the bare bottoms and cleavage. It’s centered on inclusiveness, which starts with how the audience is treated and extends to the spectrum of humanity that whoops it up onstage and off.
“People are looking for positivity and joy and a loving atmosphere,” McCormick says. “Those things have been our calling card. It comes from a place of generosity, wanting the audience to feel loved and included. Now I’m even more aware of how needed that is, and how much the audience appreciates it.”
Nutcracker Rouge Through Jan. 13 at Theatre XIV, 383 Troutman St., Brooklyn. Individual tickets: $75-$205. companyxiv.com.