Doug Elkins, who is a 2012 Guggenheim Fellow, gave the best description of artistic deconstruction I’ve ever heard, last night at the ADF gala fête following the festival’s opening night performance of Fräulein Maria by his company, Doug Elkins & Friends.
It’s like what a magician does, he said, when he apparently destroys something, and then shows it to you whole.
It was this explanation that got him the permissions from Rodgers and Hammerstein he needed in order to use the melodious songs from The Sound of Music in his dance-theater work that re-visions the well-known story with a variety of dance styles and theater techniques, among which it slips like quicksilver. One of the most pleasing sections in this regard is set to “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria,” with its charming questions about holding moonbeans, and stopping waves upon the shore. The large group of “nuns” has great fun with depicting the divergent epithets for Maria—and yes, you can evoke a flibbertigibbet in a few swift dance moves—and segues into synchronized, liquid evanescence in the small groups that signal the waves and beams.
Fräulein Maria begins in a way that distracts your attention from the virtuosity of the choreography and dancing, though. An emcee/conductor character in a tail-coat, white tie and large, odd shoes whips out a pitch pipe and begins the audience participation period. Do. Re. Mi. It goes on little long for me, and all that carrying on soured on me when the piece was done in Reynolds Theater in 2009. This time, the show paused for a word from its sponsors (Jodee Nimericther gave a happy welcome to all, and with true feeling, dedicated this ADF season to “ever-compassionate” Mary B. Regan, recently retired as director of the NC Arts Council.), and afterword, the dancers immediately morphed into the mountains so vividly limned by the recorded voice of Richard Rodgers describing the great opening scene of The Sound of Music, where the camera looks down on Julie Andrews’ Maria in this gorgeous setting, zooming in as she runs toward the camera, head back. As Rodgers said, at that moment, “we’re hers.” In Fräulein Maria, when the hills come alive with the sound of music, the dancers burst out of their cloth-covered mountain formations, where the puppet-doll Maria has strolled—and suddenly, there are three Marias, one of them male. Having three dancers to portray Maria works wonderfully, though the mixture of sincerity and burlesquing mockery in their first dance sat a little uneasily. But generally the production is joyous and playful, making smart fun that is fun, and does not wield the sly knife of sarcasm.
Gender-switching jokes persist throughout, and some are very amusing. The eldest von Trapp daughter is played by a very tall, very white man. In her floaty ballet dress, she waits on a bench, sixteen going on seventeen. The man who comes along is played by a rather short, very black man, and this arrangement puts some welcome freshness in the scene, and removes its cloying sentimentality. Sentimentality is completely absent, too, from the nuanced, moving scene in which von Trapp encounters a Nazi in uniform, and comprehends that he must leave his home. Elkins utilizes classic buffoonery to realize this sad, frightening moment, and that somehow makes it even more touching.
The show-off section has Elkins himself dancing the Mother Superior, to “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” The nun’s wimple and veil appear as a hoodie, and her habit as a pair of wide, loose, knee-pants, while black and white sneakers complete the b-boy religious uniform. Elkins is awesomely fluid as he vogues and hiphops and breaks and whirls his way through the song.
The work ends with “I Must Have Done Something Good,” and the audience agreed with that evaluation, because they were “standing there loving” the company as the song ended. Elkins had reserved “So Long, Farewell” for the curtain call, so we were ushered out in high spirits.