On an afternoon of savage cold in mid-December, 30 supple-bodied dancers dip and curve and reach, coaxing their muscles towards heat in the substrata of midtown New York’s Paramount Hotel. The dancers are spread along the thrust stage that bisects the restored, re-glammed swing-era supper club, The Diamond Horseshoe. Preparing to open its doors for the first time in 60 years this New Year’s Eve, dilapidation and neglect have been exhumed, making room for Queen of the Night, the immersive cirque-dinner-theater-orgy experience from the nightlife machers behind the downtown haunted-voyeurism hit, Sleep No More.
Lorin Latarro, the show’s choreographer, watches the dancers from a nearby banquet. Latarro’s gaze is both focused and glassy, as if she is critiquing her dancers’ performance while watching herself execute the movements in her head.
Until her recent transformation from dancer to dance-maker, Latarro was known around town as a hyper-employed Broadway chorine, performing in the ensemble and covering principal roles in 12 Broadway shows in as many years. In the past year, Latarro has choreographed her first Broadway show (the short-lived Scandalous) and created vaudeville routines for those Knights of the Realm, Sir Ian and Sir Patrick, in the current revival of Waiting For Godot. It was while working on Godot that Latarro was asked by set-designer Christine Jones to join the creative team of what would become Queen of the Night.
As it happens, the Queen of the Night creative team includes three creative directors, all high-hitting achievers in their respective fields, and all of whose concepts Latarro is expected to interpret into movement. “That’s the gig,” Latarro says, noting that the work of a dancer is ideal training ground for the kind of diplomacy and malleability she must utilize as a choreographer. This gig, however, has its unique set of challenges around which to be malleable. Latarro is not only creating stage pictures and steps for Queen of the Night. She is also devising the best way a dancer might feed bits of roast pig to an audience member (in accord with the vision of foodie performance-artist superstar, Jennifer Rubell) or how to structure a dance beneath flipping, contorting acrobats suspended from spinning brass rings overhead (alongside Les 7 Doigts de la Main co-founder, Shana Carroll).
But Queen of the Night is not just a variety-show gorge for the senses. There is a narrative, based loosely on the plot points, characters, and melodies of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, though the production itself is perhaps simply the bait meant to lure theater audiences back into the Paramount’s basement. Once lorded over by infamous Broadway huckster Danny Rose, the Diamond Horseshoe opened in 1938 and quickly became the preferred haunt of movie stars and mobsters alike. Since closing its doors in 1951, the space has housed little more than old hotel mattresses and industrial-strength cleaning supplies (though the high-voltage celebrity appeal was kept somewhat ablaze over the years with events like the one-man-show acting debut of 70’s porn star Cal Culver, and, in 1987, Andy Warhol’s wake).
Everything within the refurbished Diamond Horseshoe seems to be a little skewed, a little more intense, a little more surreal than other, less well-funded nightclubs. Decorative silk tassels dangle from the fingers of disembodied hands reaching through the walls. A hallway that seems to be covered in brushed velvet and polished stone turns out to be, upon closer inspection, a mosaic of real butterfly wings and beetle shells. Images of coiled serpents sketched on the bathroom wallpaper morph with hallucinatory ease into budding florals, then—wait a moment more—and they’ve become hanging fruit. Colored liquids bubble through glass tubes and huge distillery vials in the bar area, evoking, perhaps, the laboratory of a mad scientist swept up in the artisanal cocktail craze. All this artful excess seems intended to disorient and disinhibit guests descending from the busy theater district above. Each party, upon arrival, is welcomed by their own personal “butler,” and so begins the game of discovering for themselves just how deeply into the experience they are willing to be led.
“These dancers will become experts of intuition,” Latarro says. “They’ll learn to intuit who in the audience is willing to jump into the action and who’s better left alone.”
Queen of the Night is now in a tech rehearsal process that has the potential to be excruciating under the demands of three directors and the realities of reopening a once iconic, now forgotten, venue. The atmosphere in the underground ballroom, however, manages to be unclouded, both laid-back and efficient. Stage hands drill into the walls and ceiling. Shana Carroll sets the angle and intensity of the lights from a control board temporarily stationed at a corner dining table while two acrobats rehearse a terrifying pas de deux. The other dancers lounge around the room, waiting to be called upon, draping over banquets and each other, reviewing choreography when approached by Latarro’s assistant, otherwise snapping pictures and chatting quietly.
While the productive hum continues throughout the space, Latarro gathers a few dancers in a corner of the room to rehearse an onstage costume change for Katherine Crockett, the show’s eponymous Queen. Crockett is a fig-mouthed, flaxen-haired beauty whom Latarro admits to having idolized since their days performing together in the Martha Graham Dance Company. Crockett wears a floor-length rehearsal garment, a mock-up of the Thom Browne-designed gown she will wear in performance, and a rhinestone-encrusted headdress that looks heavy as lead. On Latarro’s cue, Crockett begins to rotate on the spot and, with a movement as effortless as breathing, lifts the headdress from her head while the dancers peel back her costume, passing her from hand to hand. Latarro guides the dancers through the sequence again and again, using her own body as a metronome, allowing her gaze to once more become somewhat glazed. She seems to know how the movement should feel just as precisely as how she wants it to look.
The goods being peddled at the Diamond Horseshoe bear little resemblance to the ones that turned Sleep No More into a word-of-mouth hit and, eventually, the must-see tourist attraction it has become. As an audience member running through the conjoined warehouses of Sleep No More’s McKittrick Hotel, face hidden behind bone-white beak masks, the experience is akin to what it might feel like to be a character in someone else’s nightmare. Though the rare possibility of being pulled into a back room to be knighted or confided in or kissed by murderous, pan-sexual dancers keeps diehards returning again and again, the Sleep No More audience remains, on the whole, invisible to the cast. In contrast, the Queen of the Night creators have seen to it that participating in and becoming part of the story in the Paramount’s basement will be the rule, not the exception.
New Yorkers are often criticized for an immoderate self-involvement, a sustained tunnel vision that allows them to look through instead of at people, even when standing face-to face or nuts-to-butts on a crowded subway. There may be some truth to the self-involvement claim. But another, equal truth may be that looking anywhere but into a fellow commuter’s face at rush hour is a consideration, a means of giving those most valued of New York commodities: anonymity and space. At Sleep No More, patrons pay to watch within smelling distance of other people’s homicides and orgasms while they themselves maintain the advantage of being, in essence, invisible and unobserved. The question audiences of Queen of the Night will face is whether they want to be unmasked and, ultimately, to be seen.