"The Maria character is a classical trickster. We can replace the word "Maria" in the lyric "How do you solve a problem like Maria" with any word -- even dance."
-- Doug Elkins, choreographer
After a six-year, very successful run of their deconstruction of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music, Doug Elkins and Friends will retire Fräulein Maria this weekend at The Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. A simple statement is printed across the front of the current run of T-shirts for the show "Frauf Wiedersehen," reflecting the lighthearted and direct spirit of this piece. Described by New York Times critic Roslyn Sulcas as "a mini-masterpiece, encompassing everything that is brilliant about Mr. Elkins's choreography," Fräulein is chock-full of dancerly, cultural, and personal references. Drawn from both Elkins rich and varied dance background -- from hip-hop to ballet, and fight choreography to post-modern release technique -- and from all of the embodied styles that the dancers bring to the process, Fräulein Maria is an choreographic Stone Soup that contains a tapestry of collective memory for dancers and audiences alike.
As a scholar in residence at Jacob's Pillow, I had the opportunity to spend time with both Elkins and the members of the cast. The first thing that comes across is how cohesive this group is. Deborah Lohse, who plays both the Baroness and the Reverend Mother, and is creating a short film about Fräulein, referenced the work of renown therapist Dan Savage. His 'GGG' philosophy suggests that in successful relationships both partners must be good, giving, and game. "Everyone in this cast is good -- technically, personally, and to others, we are incredibly giving to the process and one another, and game to try just about anything." And it shows -- from casual interactions on campus to the trust and generosity these dancers bring to the stage.
Has Fräulein Maria, however, addressed the question, of 'solving a problem like dance'? For Meghan Merrill, who plays one of the three Maria characters, this work has offered the opportunity to incorporate her childhood study of tap and jazz into her post-modern NYU Tisch School of the Arts training. "I get to be a ham," she smiles. And Donnell Oakley who plays multiple characters, shared, "it's amazing to gaze into the audience and see people looking like they are waking up to something -- a kind of innocence or pureness -- the experience of all being kids again together."
For Elkins, Fräulein Maria grew from a place of reflection and countless viewings of the The Sound of Music with his young son, who was then age 4. When accused of not taking his work seriously, Elkins points to the play of children. "Children take play very seriously," he reminds and there is a great amount of serious play in this piece.
It can not be overstated that, though Fräulein is fun, the dancers work incredibly hard to master Elkins complex and demanding choreography. As Karen Campbell of the Boston Globe wrote, "The icing on the cake is the depth and range of the choreography. Elkins integrates disparate elements with such fluidity it's like a whole new language, and his dancers are spectacular."
The work is also full of gender play, sexual innuendo, and once taboo political references. The true craftsmanship of the work shines through as audiences open to ideas, perhaps uncomfortable, and are allowed the breathing room and encouragement that makes it OK to laugh. Elkins and his co-directors, Barbara Karger and Michael Preston have done an outstanding job.
As the Fräulein takes her final bow on Sunday afternoon, I'll leave the cast and fellow fans with the words of another childhood favorite: "Never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting."
J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan