Storm Marrero and the cast of Nutcracker Rouge
Photograph: Mark Shelby Perry | Storm Marrero and the cast of Nutcracker Rouge

Company XIV’s Nutcracker Rouge will make you blush

The burlesque dance troupe Company XIV takes a titillating crack at a holiday favorite.

Adam Feldman

Arriving at Company XIV’s Nutcracker Rouge feels a bit like falling down a rabbit hole. From the outside, Théâtre XIV doesn’t look like much; tucked away on a nondescript block, it could be any other graffiti-covered old brick space in Bushwick. Beyond the front door, though, is a cozily decadent wonderland: a baroque speakeasy decked out in gilded mirrors, carved wood, chandeliers, Austrian curtains, miniature carousel horses and a gramophone. Paper figures of powder-wigged courtiers poke out from an opera-house maquette. Icicles of crystal drip from a silver tree.

It’s an ideal atmosphere for the exuberantly bawdy spectacles that are Company XIV’s specialty, including the adults-only version of The Nutcracker that has become an annual tradition. Guided by founding director-choreographer Austin McCormick and longtime resident designer Zane Pihlström, the troupe offers a unique combination of classical dance, high-toned burlesque and deluxe costumery, buttressed by live singers and specialty circus acts. The performers also act as bartenders, ushers and hosts, adding to the sense of naughty-nice immersion.

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“What Zane and I try to do is create a dream world,” McCormick says. “And The Nutcracker obviously lends itself to that.” Like more traditional accounts of the holiday story, Nutcracker Rouge follows a girl through an episodic adventure that includes Tchaikovsky music, a handsome prince and lots of dancing candy. But in this case, she’s on a grown-up voyage of erotic self-discovery, punctuated by striptease and acrobatic artistry. Candy Cane hangs from the ceiling on straps; Turkish Delight is a contortionist; Absinthe spins in the giant circus apparatus known as a Cyr wheel. Before the sensual final pas de deux comes an orgiastic can-can that can best be described as climactic. (A giant stuffed phallus makes an appearance.)

“I love our jiggly can-can,” says Pihlström. “It balances sexy and silly perfectly. It’s a fantasy of your wildest New Year’s Eve party, the one you wish you were invited to.” That spirit is essential to McCormick’s vision for Company XIV. His background is in Baroque court dance, but when he was studying ballet and contemporary dance at Juilliard he began attending burlesque venues and was taken with what he saw. “I loved the energy around those performance spaces—the feeling of inclusivity and positivity and optimism,” he recalls. “When I started my company, I wanted to have that party atmosphere. I wanted it to feel like a fun event that people would look forward to and enjoy, and less like an artistic burden.” 

It’s a fantasy of your wildest New Year’s Eve party, the one you wish you were invited to.
Company XIV’s Nutcracker Rouge
Photograph: Deneka Peniston, courtesy of Company XIV

The result is a delightful mix of highbrow, lowbrow and arched brow. “Everybody’s extremely talented and accomplished at what they do,” McCormick says. “It’s all about taking our classical education and twisting it, contrasting it.” The variety of the show’s tone is reflected in the designs. “Austin and I try to be very specific with the temperature of each act,” Pihlström notes. “If it’s a comedy act, then I go for it all the way and ham it up with messy wigs and ill-fitting showgirl costumes. If it’s a sensual moment, we spend a lot of time making every detail perfect and every shape seductive.”

“Everything is details, details, details, and it’s refined,” says the strapping Candy Cane aerialist, Nolan, who has been in every Company XIV show since 2018. “The collaboration of all these different elements—opera, ballet, circus, sideshow—creates a very New York kind of idea of a performance.” But the show doesn’t skimp on skimpiness either. “Audiences come to a burlesque show to see powerful, beautiful bodies,” Pihlström says, and his designs give the people what they want. “He wants to heighten and enlighten all aspects of everyone’s beauty and what they can bring to the table,” says Storm Marrero, a knockout vocalist who first performed with Company XIV in 2016 and, as Nutcracker Rouge’s main singer and narrator, wears a sequence of eye-popping outfits and headdresses. “He makes sure that everybody is looking amazing.” 

The company’s elaborate, femme-forward costumes—”In my opinion, performing in high heels almost always makes a dance or act more impressive,” Pihlström says—can be demanding for the performers. “Bending and flipping in a corset is a new experience,” says dancer Nicholas Katen, who has been with the company since 2013. “And while rhinestones look pretty, when they fall out they’re quite sharp. I’ve got the scars to prove it!” Marrero says that she has had to relearn how to use her voice to adjust to all the cinching. “Physically, it takes a lot out of you,” she says. “At the end of the night, we are exhausted. But it’s a great exhaustion, because the audience walks out so happy, so enthralled. You see their faces, and they are just in awe. And that feeds my soul.” 

The collaboration of all these different elements—opera, ballet, circus, sideshow—creates a very New York kind of idea of a performance.
Storm singing in Company XIV’s Nutcracker Rouge
Photograph: Mark Shelby Perry, courtesy of Company XIV

That feeling helps explain why so many of Company XIV’s performers stay with the company for as long as they do—and why audiences keep coming back to Nutcracker Rouge. “We’ve been doing it for 13 years, and I hear very often that it’s become a tradition for people to see it yearly,” says McCormick. “People come from out of town and center their holiday festivities around it.” Pihlström understands where they’re coming from: “I think nowhere in this country could you see a production like this, done at this level. It’s a full night of fantasy and I think only New Yorkers—and people visiting New York—are brave enough to go.”

“It brings a sense of togetherness,” says Marrero. “We’re a company that is very LGBTQIA. This place brings you together with your chosen family, and it allows you to meet your new family, you know? To me, that’s the significance of Christmas: the love that you have for one another.” And for can-can orgies? “Yes! Can-can orgies with huge, huge fluffy penises. The balls make noise if you squeeze them! They’re like squeaky toys! It’s the best.”

Nutcracker Rouge runs through January 24 at Théâtre XIV. You can buy tickets here

Our NYC gift guide presented by the cast of Company XIV’s Nutcracker Rouge

An illustrated NYC storefronts book

New York City is comprised of so much, but especially its storefronts — the tiny locksmith shops, expansive markets and the greasy spoon diners. If they love New York as much as we do, consider NYC Storefronts: Illustrations of the Big Apple’s Best-Loved Spots by Joel Holland. This book contains 225 illustrations of some of the city’s most iconic storefronts, each with a mini description and tips on everything from where to find the best chicken schnitzel to where to buy a black cap fringed with red-and-yellow flames. It’s a gem to own.

$24.99 on

One Love Little Caribbean Food Box

Give them a taste of Brooklyn’s Little Caribbean with this food box containing all sorts of local treats, including an Island Love Cake (Coconut Aged Rum); a “Bloom Where You Are Planted” tea towel; a Brooklyn luggage tag; Pisqueya seasoning and Shaquanda’s Hot Pepper Sauce. It all comes in a box that is shaped and made to look like the caribBEING House — a repurposed shipping container with bespoke wood interiors and custom finishes,

$64 at


A NYC skyline mug

There’s no other skyline like the New York City skyline. A proud New Yorker would enjoy sipping their joe out of this oversized mug that celebrates the city’s artsy sky and landmarks.

$24.95 at Fishs Eddy

NYPL Lion Bookends

The resident lions of the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building can actually come home with you — sort of. If you’re looking for a useful but special gift for a bookworm in your life, the NYPL has bookends modeled after the icons, “Patience” and “Fortitude,” that were hand-cast in marble powder and museum-quality resin. At 7 pounds each, you can buy both or just one depending on the need and your price range.

$60 each at or in-store



A Teddy bear representing their train line

The New York Transit Museum has a lot to choose from these days, from model trains to subway line T-shirts, but for the young ones in your life, a little Teddy bear with their favorite subway line on its belly is a sweet gift to give any kid. 

$9.99 at or in-store at the Brooklyn museum or its Grand Central Terminal store

An artsy scarf from The Met

If your loved one has a favorite artist, especially one whose work can be found at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, there’s a big chance you can find a reproduction of their favorite piece at the Met’s museum shop in many forms—coasters, mugs, puzzles, you name it. But our favorite idea is a gorgeous silk scarf that they can wrap around their neck or use to put up their hair like this Van Gogh neckerchief. This way, they’re always surrounded by art that brings them joy. 

$28 at or in the Met Museum’s shop


Empire State Building martini glasses

Knock it out of the park with these sculpted glasses made to look just like the Empire State Building. These 8-ounce crystal glasses sit on detailed, etched historic nickel-plated stems. It gives Art Deco. Early 90s. Sophistication. Camp. And they’re usually available for dine-in guests only at the State Grill and Bar in the Empire State Building.

$50 for a set of two glasses on-site at State Grill and Bar (21 West 33rd Street)

A bagel with lox tree ornament

If they’ve made their tradition of bagel and lox their personality (who wouldn’t?) then this sweet glass ornament might be just the right thing to add to their holiday decor. The hand-painted bauble is delicate and a quirky gift for any New Yorker.

$15.95 at or in-store at Pearl River Mart


A candle that actually smells like an NYC slice

This candle isn’t basic. Literie’s “Pizza From A Guy Named Joe,” smells so much like a pizzeria that it is mouthwatering. Made with a vegan soy and coconut wax blend (it’s sulfate-, SLS-, and Phthalate-free, non-toxic and animal cruelty-free), it contains basil and tomato notes for a truly intoxicating scent. Simply lighting it would trick anyone into thinking you’re making your own pie at home.

$45 at


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