"It seems that I've actually stumbled back into relevance," says choreographer Doug Elkins, talking about his dance production Fräulein Maria, a deconstruction of The Sound of Music.
Elkins put himself through college, paying off student loans as a breakdancer before founding the Doug Elkins Dance Company and earning critical acclaim in the '90s. But all that unraveled in the middle of a divorce and, as he says, "opportunities that weren't there." His company dissolved in 2003. But rebirth didn't take long. One evening in 2005, he found inspiration while watching The Sound of Music with his five-year-old son.
"We'd create these hilariously awful dances in the apartment, and as we were playing, I had this awkward Joyce-ian epiphany, funneled through Julie Andrews," he says. The idea: deconstruct The Sound of Music through dance, with allusions to pop culture — from hip-hop to martial-arts films to the Marx brothers.
"I'm interested in our collective memory of The Sound of Music," he says, "whether you did 'Doe, a Deer' in a grade-school production, or it was on TV behind you during Thanksgiving, or you saw the Gwen Stefani remix. It's all grist for the mill."
Initially Elkins put together routines for only "The Lonely Goatherd" and "Do-Re-Mi." But then, over lunch one day, Dancenow/NYC artistic director Robin Staff commissioned him to choreograph the entire soundtrack. The production debuted to a sold-out house at Joe's Pub in New York City in 2006 and returned annually. This year, when the tour (which is coming to Cleveland as part of DanceCleveland's series) returns to New York, it will move to a more prominent venue: Dance Theater Workshop's Bessie Schonberg Theater.
Elkins draws on his hip-hop background and experience as a fight choreographer, incorporating martial-arts moves into the production. He also borrows signature movements from modern-dance icons of the 20th century. The song "Edelweiss" becomes a riff on Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan. "Lonely Goatherd" is hip-hop-ified and involves professional dancers from Cleveland companies, including GroundWorks Dancetheater, Verb Ballets, Footpath, MegLouise Dance, Ohio Dance Theatre and MorrisonDance.
Fräulein Maria even has Elkins thinking about where his career goes next. Among the possibilities: a similar deconstruction of Othello, using familiar Motown music.