Fraulein Maria mixes silliness and delight

November 14, 2009

The dancing nun

Choreographer Doug Elkins' "Frulein Maria" sets the Annenberg alive with "The Sound of Music" and movement.

By Lisa Kraus


Sat. Nov 14, 2009

Been to any dance performances lately that begin with an audience sing-along? Choreographer Doug Elkins' Frulein Maria, a lovingly irreverent take on The Sound of Music presented by Dance Celebration at the Annenberg Center, may well be the first. It opens with an emcee in tails coaxing us into a robust rendition of "Do-Re-Mi." With that, we're plunged right into the show's mix of silliness and delight.

Elkins is known for his hybridization of hip-hop and modern dance seasoned with a slew of other dance styles. In retelling the von Trapp family tale he has found a perfect vehicle for his irrepressible postmodern playfulness.

Set to the Rodgers and Hammerstein score, Frulein Maria features a cast of 13 able dancers slipping in and out of roles, donning hoodies to become a bevy of nuns or shorts and sailor tops as the von Trapp brood. Fabric held aloft becomes mountain scenery, miniature trees held behind a bench become a park.

The production, directed by Barbara Karger and Michael Preston (of Flying Karamazov Brothers fame), loosely traces the original story with Maria played by not one but three dancers, a powerfully built black man (Kevin Fitzgerald Ferguson) among them. Helpings of gender-bending, odd pairings, and scrambled plot elements are served up with frequent sight gags and nimble comic timing.

Balanchine's perfect symmetries and Graham's cupped hands splice with capoeira sparring and acrobatic flips. Much of the movement is a Limon-esque surging, loping sweep in and out of the floor and into the air; it's brisk, aerobic, and punchy with plentiful partnering, high legs, and lifts. The gestural jokes are the hot sauce in the mix, like falling face-first through a partner's legs or miming the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

All the delirious fun can begin to feel relentlessly hyperactive, but the pacing slows in a few quiet moments. A favorite one comes after Maria leaves the household, an undulating hula danced to the sad reprise of the film's theme song.

The evening's high point was Elkins' own hip-hop tour de force solo to "Climb Every Mountain." Splicing bouncy stepping with sinuous snaking and hoop-shooting gestures, he mixed hard/soft, tough/sweet in a masterful split-second shuffling of modes and moods. It was greeted with ecstatic shouts - a true showman's due.