PillowVoices: Dance Through Time

Lisa Niedermeyer Revisits Doug Elkins’ Fräulein Maria

Episode Summary

As an artist, technologist, and former dancer with Doug Elkins and Friends, Lisa Niedermeyer reflects on her time with the company and her embodied memories of performing in Fräulein Maria, the uproarious and joyful dance based on The Sound of Music. We also hear from Elkins himself, recorded during two different Pillow engagements.

Episode Notes

As an artist, technologist, and former dancer with Doug Elkins and Friends, Lisa Niedermeyer reflects on her time with the company and her embodied memories of performing in Fräulein Maria, the uproarious and joyful dance based on The Sound of Music. We also hear from Elkins himself, recorded during two different Pillow engagements.






Episode Transcription

[Music begins, composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: Welcome to pillow voices, a production of Jacob's Pillow dance festival with content from the Pillow archives. I'm Norton Owen the Pillow’s director of preservation, and it's my pleasure to introduce Lisa Niedermeyer who has a deep history here. Lisa was a summer staff member for many seasons and was integral in developing our Dance Interactive platform.  She balanced that work with touring as a dancer, and here she reflects on her time with Doug Elkins and Friends, including her work in Fräulein Maria.

LISA NIEDERMEYER: More than a decade has passed since Fräulein Maria was first performed at Jacob’s Pillow. Since then, the movie The Sound of Music, which the dance production is based on, has surpassed its 50th anniversary. In that span of time I have retired from performing as a dancer and pivoted my career to creating digital art and sculpture. And while my current life is no longer rehearsals and touring, the people from this show and how the show was created have marked me. In this episode I revisit embodied memories and connect the dots to the origin stories as told by the choreographer Doug Elkins.

I remember performing in Philly at The Annenberg for a gathering of school kids. Homeschool, public school, private school, all mixed together. And with call and response aspect of the show it was delightful to have such a lively audience. These kids really brought out the best in us as performers; they were egging us on for the comedic bits and we weren’t pulling back on anything just because it was kids. And it was after this matinee when I heard perhaps the most honest question ever asked in a post show Q&A. 

Now these kids had just experienced multiple dancers playing the part of Maria made famous by the actress and singer Julie Andrews. The dancers playing our Marias were Donnel Oakley, Megahn Merrill and Arthur Aviles. So the microphone gets passed to a super young kid who was, you know, standing on a teacher’s lap so that they can see over heads in the audience and asks... ‘Why did d’ boy be d’ girl?’. And let me tell you, I leaned right on in because I really wanted to hear how Doug was gonna answer for an auditorium filled with the next generation. Was he gonna go into a lesson about gender identity, make a joke and move on? Yes Doug, please do explain. ‘Why did the boy be the girl?’. And Doug’s response was simple and brilliant and I remember how my body responded. It felt like what you would hope home to feel like.

So when I had this opportunity to revisit archived post show talks, I was super curious if he also answered this question for the audiences of Jacob’s Pillow. Here’s what I found in the recording of a post show talk, facilitated by Pillow Scholar Jennifer Edwards in August of 2012. This was an encore performance after Fräulein Maria premiered at the Pillow in 2009. 

DOUG ELKINS: Well, first of all, a lot of people want to be Maria. Second, second of all, is more interested in kind of ‘Marianess’. And in away, she's for those of you who get this reference, she's kind of like the she's a trickster character. But she's also kind of I know, this is obscure, she's the Winnicottian ‘good enough mother’ - yeah? Think about the plot, you know, she's the person who kind of heals this wounded family by teaching them how to sing and put on little shows. And I was trying to reference to my children, this kind of object lesson about the importance of art and making it not just watching it, but making it too. And the reason there's a male Maria, because at the time, my son was five, and maybe a lot of you parents can remember when they're, your kids have that costume box. And there's a point where your children before they're gendered and socialized. The costume box usually has a lot of pretty dresses. And my son loved playing and dancing and his dresses. And part of it was my note to try to protect that in my child. You know, and I remember having to tell the people that when Rodgers and Hammerstein so it's a drag show. Nope. So Maria's and drag, and Liselle? Nope. Maria is just a very pretty man in a beautiful dress.

LISA NIEDERMEYER: Gender fluidity was a meaningful aspect of this show. While there were many moments of surprise and humor related to gender, gender and sexuality were not conflated. I played many different characters in the production including one of the male VonTrapp children and also The Captain paired with one of the 3 Marias. In the waltz duets of the song “Something Good,” three different Marias are partnered by their Captains. As a queer person, some of the most swoon worthy romantic partnering moments I’ve ever witnessed, lay in this section, because what we did was deconstruct the very essence of falling in love. Here’s Doug’s origin story of one of those moments from the same Pillow Talk.

DOUG ELKINS: Like in Something Good. When the captain jumps into Maria's arms. And part of that is about gender. But also someone said, Where'd you come up with that? I said, Oh, it's very easy. Ah, at the time, my children, anybody who's had children, you know, when your kids jump off of everything, get me? How'd you get up there? Oh, my God, come down. No, not that way. And but it's also at that age, what we it's also that age, or that first thing you fall in love with. That's what we want love to be. You jump and I'll be there.

LISA NIEDERMEYER: You jump and I’ll be there. And vice versa. Listen in as I revisit these duets and share my unscripted real time response.

[Transcriber’s notes: Although Lisa is talking while the following song, “Something Good,” plays, lyrics are audible. They are presented after the section where she speaks.] 

LISA NIEDERMEYER: Mmm, I love, oh, that construct of Arthur and… you know that heavy, bone-density and he just gives all of his weight to his partner and they catch it, like, and they both sink to the ground because it’s a bit too much. It’s beautiful. And then my Maria, I remember she was always sweaty, so I blew on her face and that would rippled down her body and that’s what pulled us on stage and then just never, never disconnecting. That entire diagonal is just a spiral, in and out, never taking my eyes off of Maria. And [laughing] oh, yeah, mmm, and then that squeeze as we exit, like we can’t wait to get, to be alone. And here comes the captain’s leap running across the stage, back arched, blind, wrapped around his Maria. And then he slides down all the way to the ground they are looking at each other and he holds those knees tight. And here, this, he reaches back, impossibly back in a lean, because she’s held. You know that range of motion - that’s only possible when you’re truly partnered it’s, uh, it’s beautiful. Mmmm, [breath] and Doug, Doug is showing us this because we’ve, we’ve seen it before but we’re seeing it in the flip, in the equity, in the switch, it’s queer as AF, I love it. Um, oh that’s sweet. Here comes the kiss. [laughing] and who lifts their legs in the kiss? Which one? [Lisa laughs; audience applauds].

[Transcriber’s notes: Lyrics to “Something Good” which played under Lisa’s verbal response above]

For here you are, standing there, loving me
Whether or not you should
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good
Nothing comes from nothing
Nothing ever could
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good
For here you are standing there, loving me
Whether or not you should
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good
Nothing comes from nothing
Nothing ever could
So somewhere in my youth
Or childhood
I must have done something
Something good

LISA NIEDERMEYER: A small yummy embodied memory I have from Fräulein Maria is the feeling of taking off my knee pads after hours of partnering. The knee pads are tight around my knee joints, and the crinkles on my skin are from the elastic of the kneed pad digging in, and peeling the sweaty knee pads down to my ankles and releasing the trapped heat and sweat and the tingling as the blood flow comes back and the air cools the skin. That was the start of my ritual of cooling down my body post performance. Knee pads are not uncommon in dance, however they were especially useful when in this case the choreography was influenced by martial arts.

Doug credits the martial artist Jackie Chan as an influence. We as dancers were never expected to duplicate moves martial artists have trained their entire lives to do, however we were given movement that required rapid speed, split second timing, learning how to safely defer if there is a disconnect, and we were intentionally given certain movements, I’ll even use the word ‘stunts’, that were just within our reach athletically. 

Which means in performance when the variables of muscle fatigue from a back to back run of the show, or a casting change mixes things up, when something is just within reach there will be times when the ‘stunt’ doesn’t work. So when the stunt DOES really work, we are all collectively delighted, both the dancers AND the audience, and there is a shared elevation of energy. I certainly have been in productions before where the partnering had high risk elements and the distinction working with Doug and this cast was that this risk was centered in joy. We were never expected to be perfect robots executing tricks.

Watch a Jackie Chan movie, look for where he reveals that something was a really close call or that he even misses and takes the sting of the disconnect. Jackie Chan is not a flawless character in his films and there is so much joy in his movement and self discovery of what he is capable of, he is always expanding that capacity and we get to witness the joy of that in real time.

In Fräulein Maria it’s the song “I Have Confidence” that holds one of the most vivid examples of this real time, let’s just call it ‘stunt joy’. In the film Sound of Music, Maria is being sent away from all that she knows to teach a family of 7 children. In Fräulein Maria, this song is a duet of two opposing emotional states (confidence and anxiety) and mixes both martial arts and clowning. You can very much see Jackie Chan and Buster Keaton influences and it beautifully sets up the audience for the emotional stakes when Maria is introduced to the entire VonTrapp family in the scene that follows.

Next I’m going to describe the movement leading into and following the stunt and include the audience reaction.

[Transcriber’s notes: Although Lisa is talking while the following song, “I Have Confidence” plays, lyrics are audible. They are presented after the section where she speaks.]

Maria 1 lifts Maria 2 into a balletic balance that tips over and sends Maria 2 into a faceplant. They lift each other off the ground and set themselves up for another challenge. Maria 1 wearing a full skirt and apron puts their hands on the ground and makes a V shape with their but in the air, Maria 2 is a few feet behind crouched and hopping up and down and looks at the audience with a ‘I hope this works face’. The hopping Maria makes the sign of the cross over their chest and leaps head first no hands into the space between the other Marias legs. Shoulders and neck are cradled and caught by the backs of their partners legs and then rapidly, rapidly rebounded back in a catch and release, the momentum redirects both of them and they ride that momentum sending one Maria into a swirl and sharp pose in a crouched balance with arms and head reached high, while the other Maria tumbles into pieces on the ground. Black out. [sound of applause]

[Transcriber’s notes: Lyrics to “I Have Confidence” which played under Lisa’s verbal response above]

I have confidence in rain
I have confidence that spring will come again
Besides which you see I have confidence in me
Strength doesn't lie in numbers
Strength doesn't lie in wealth
Strength lies in nights of peaceful slumbers
When you wake up -- Wake Up!
It tells me all I trust I lead my heart to
All I trust becomes my own
I have confidence in confidence alone
I have confidence in confidence alone
Besides which you see I have confidence in me!

[Transcriber’s note: under Lisa’s voice in this paragraph the sounds of clanking glasses, a piano and saxophone play in the back ground, creating a dinner club-like atmosphere that sets the stage for the description of Joe’s Pub.]

LISA NIEDERMEYER: Fräulein Maria was originally developed on the teeny tiny band platform of Joe’s Pub in New York City as part of the DanceNOW series. At Joe’s Pub there are no wings, no dance floor and the audience is so close their cabaret table candles flicker when you spin by. From these beginnings the show went on to be co-directed by Michael Preston and Barbara Karger and become a touring production for larger stages. When the container for our show got bigger, there was room for the entire cast of 12 performers, to watch and learn from each other in the wings.

In “Climb Every Mountain,” the song sung by the Mother Abbess of the convent as Maria is leaving her life as a nun towards her journey of growth, Doug Elkins performs a solo dressed as a Bboy wearing a black hoodie trimmed with the white of a nun’s habit. The solo pays homage to his many dance mentors including Willie Ninja, his very own Mother of the House of Ninja where Doug came up as a dancer. I recall watching this solo from the wings, so completely drawn in and trying to catch each and every reference. Like footnotes in a book. Like a game of finding the asterisks that map this particular body and dance history.

In this post show talk, moderated by Suzanne Carbonneau in August of 2009, Doug demonstrates some elements of the Ninja style used in homage in this solo and his connection with Willie Ninja.

DOUG ELKINS: And a lot of the Ninja style also used to add what's known in breaking as electric boogie style as popping and dime stopping. And uh, one the models of the Ninja style. And part of it was voguing and also mixing Kung Fu films. Willy I used to go down with some of the other members of House of Ninja a longtime ago we're talking about like the early ‘90s, there used to be a first run kung fu film, cinema. First run kung fu film cinema on Canal Street, listen to everything in Mandarin and Cantonese. But and we watch it and use the movement and also do what's called there's a level of tension you hit when you do what's called popping or dime stopping. You ever, ever. Someone surprise you and your body kind of takes that little popping, it's kind of like that, but you're controlling it, uh, a muscular tension and release a quick kind of twitch of the, of the muscle. So you're almost imitating almost like a strobe light or a camera going off. Like there's a style in ninja style called strobing or animating. So instead of doing something like this in ah [audience laughs and claps]. And a lot of it is also playing with the jokes about things that describe gender too, like Archie is very muscular. And everyone's always surprised to find out that he's married but it's ah…  Willy kind of had a lot of people in the house didn't matter if you're gay straight. If you wanted to walk and you were really committed to the house and you were willing to walk in a ball he would take you in.You'd become a child of the House of Ninja the same way straight b-boys have crews it's all about kind of creating connections and families everyone's kind of looking for this and and and movement is a language preferred. 

LISA NIEDERMEYER: A cherished artifact from my personal archives that holds this feeling of connection that Doug is lifting up, is from my final performance ofFräulein Maria. The show was still touring but it was my time to move onto the next and I took about 100 photos on my iPhone during what I knew would be my final time onstage. I took photos of the tiny Maria puppets used to make our fabric Alps look giant, the velvet of the stage curtains, the olive in the martini that Deborah Lohse eats in her epic huffy exit offstage as the Contessa. I captured these details in between dancing and rapid costume changes. My most cherished photo of this series is the only one with the entire cast in it. I am standing behind two other performers, just behind them, and they are leaning their heads in towards each other so that they can peer on stage to watch Doug’s solo and not be seen by the audience. The stage lights in the wings across from us are directly in our eyes, we are literally breathing (and sometimes holding our breath) along with Doug and the Mother Abbess ascending her singing in Climb Every Mountain. For me witnessing from the wings collectively is the ritual of connection and mutual respect, and honestly even the awe we held for each other as company. And this was every show - not just at the beginning, not just at the end. Here is Doug during the post show talk in 2012 revealing how he chooses to relate to collaborators and hierarchy in artmaking.

DOUG ELKINS: I mean, it’s all companies, if you look, think - all companies, whether it's a dance company, theater company, even a business, you know, it models, a culture created by something by someone by some people. And I danced with a lot of different companies, but I think the kind of thing I enjoy, I enjoy dialogue, I enjoy rhetoric. I enjoy, you know, someone to have, people to just, like kind of bullshit and have a meal with at the end of, at the end of the evening. Um, It's more like, it's more like a group of really, you know, somebody once said, ‘Wow, that that section is really brilliant. You're brilliant.’ I said, it's like, I made a joke, it's like telling, it's like telling Thelonious Monk he's brilliant for putting Dizzy Gillespie in. You know, [sigh] that was a brilliant move putting John Coltrane in to play that section, you think? You know, and they're, they're my, they're our collaborators, our peers. Um, part of our, - think of it as one of those old sailing ships like a schooner, or something, you know, not that everyone has these all hands on deck, you know, I mean, and everyone's taking part in it. And it's the way I kind of prefer, prefer the world. I mean, other people may prefer different hierarchy. And if you look at anybody else's work, you'll see it's anybody else's work, you know, they're they're telling you what their take on the world.

LISA NIEDERMEYER: When we look at someone’s artistic work and we include how they relate to their collaborators, we include what is happening in the wings and in the audience and how that feels for all the bodies involved, we are absolutely being shown what that artists’ take on the world is. I said at the beginning I was marked by the people and experience of Fräulein Maria. I mean that in many ways both personal and professional. I am marked forever by this this take on artmaking that centered joy, love, humor, honoring those that have come before us, complexity, risk, healing, and chosen family - both onstage and off. In the years since Fräulein Maria was first performed at Jacob’s Pillow I have been exposed to new art forms and new takes on art making, including the disability art movement and working with the dance company Kinetic Light. And I’d like to end this episode which is grounded in embodied memory and revisiting cherished moments, by also sharing an example of experiencing something radically differently now, than I did in person ten year ago. 

In rewatching the post show interview with Doug and Pillow Scholar Suzanne Carbonneau. Where, before I saw Doug behaving as a comedian and trickster, you know, someone entertaining the audience by resisting the formality of Q&A format by never directly answering the questions posed. At the time I was in tears laughing at him not behaving as the audience might expect. With the awareness I have now because of my exposure within the disability art movement, I experience this particular post show talk as an example of a neurodiverse mind in the spotlight of an experience designed for neurotypical minds. Traditionally a Q&A sets the audience up to expect linear thinking and succinct answers. It sets the audience up to expect that artist to not say out loud everything going through their head and rather offer up an edited version of what that artist wants the audience to know. 

With the awareness I have now, in watching this post show talk I can see Pillow Scholar Suzanne adapting to the situation and after 10 minutes of not getting answers, shifting away from question/answer into lecture demonstration and inviting Doug to get out of the chair and into his body, and seeing the stories flow from that shift and alignment with how Doug’s mind prefers to work. Now, I don’t really know where Doug himself identifies in terms of neurodiverse and neurotypical, my observation is more about me as an artist utilizing the Pillow archives to re-experience something I myself lived through and because of what I’ve learned since then, gaining an entirely new insight. What I felt when Doug was invited to communicate in a way that made sense to him - was freedom - and that freedom is what Doug facilitated for me - freedom to be myself, freedom to explore and freedom to see the world just a little bit differently.  

[Music begins, composed, and performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: That’s it for this episode of PillowVoices. Thank you for joining us today. On behalf of Jacob's Pillow, we look forward to sharing more dance with you through the films, essays, and podcasts at danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org, and of course through live experiences during our festival and throughout the year. Special thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts for helping launch this podcast series. Please subscribe to PillowVoices wherever you get your podcasts and visit us again soon, either online or onsite.