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BY TRAV S.D. | Some things never worsen, only improve. I have been following Company XIV for almost six years, and their work just seems to grow richer, more beautiful and complex.
Founded in 2006 by choreographer Austin McCormick, the company uses baroque dance as a jumping off point for productions that mash up high and low culture, incorporating elements of burlesque, opera, Weimar cabaret, masque, conventional ballet, jazz and modern dance, New Romanticism, camp, and circus arts. I try to see everything they do, and have had the pleasure of experiencing “Le Cirque Feerique” or “The Fairy Circus” (2010), “The Halloween Plays” (their 2010 evening of spooky short works with Brave New World Repertory), “Eliogabolo” (their 2011 collaboration with Gotham Chamber Opera), “Rococo Rouge” (their astounding 2014 variety revue), and their annual eroticized holiday extravaganza “Nutcracker Rouge,” which I’ve managed to catch twice. I’ve seen them in their old space near the Gowanus Canal (damaged by Hurricane Sandy — good riddance!), at the sexy after-hours night club The Box, at their own short-lived venue on Lafayette St., and, more than once, at the Minetta Lane Theatre, where their present show — “Snow White” — is ensconced.
Fairy tales are a staple of the Company XIV repertoire. Their “Pinocchio: A Fantasy of Pleasures” was a hit of the 2011 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and they opened their 2015 season with their critically acclaimed “Cinderella.” McCormick’s treatments of the familiar stories are not for children, however. Beautiful bodies, male and female — provocatively adorned, and sensuously choreographed — are his stock in trade. In his schema, the body itself is a work of art.
His Queen (Laura Careless) although not billed as “Wicked” (as is customary in retellings of the story), is most assuredly vain, surrounded by mirrors and videocams and a corps of lackeys festooned like her in Warhol-esque blonde wigs. Her “mirror, mirror” is a video projection on the back wall, and the news it reports is increasingly bad. Into her life comes Snow White (Hilly Bodin), although we might be forgiven for mistaking her for Rose Red when we first meet her, tricked out as she is in crimson lingerie. Gender, as always, is fluid in McCormick’s creations. Here, Snow White defies traditional archetypes by being tomboyish, with the compact body of a gymnast and closely cropped hair. Whereas the Prince (Courtney Gioannone) who eventually rescues her is not just played by a fine-boned female, but portrayed in a manner that emphasizes traditional notions of femininity. Butch and Femme are flipped, and all in the cast are, on some level, both male and female.
The dancers themselves seem like the characters they play — mythological creatures, capable of miraculous metamorphoses. And yet all of them have more than one superpower. In this cast are an aerialist, an opera singer, a concert pianist, a bilingual narrator (who narrates in English and German), puppeteers, and many acrobats of one sort or another — in addition to all the beautiful dance.
While it is serious and profound, it never ceases to be fun, and even occasionally gets broadly humorous, as when numbers are staged to camp chestnuts like “A Corset Can Do a Lot for a Lady,” “Chapel of Love” and “Lucky Lips,” the latter featuring the entire chorus sporting large, clownish soup-coolers. Zane Pihlstrom’s set and costume designs leave one reeling from an explosion of graphic takeaways: Satyr-like men in high heels. Fosse-style broads primping in a dressing room. Hart horns on humans. Diamonds as ball gags. A birdcage crown. On the night I attended, even a video projection effect got applause.
McCormick spoke about his long history with this story and why it inspires him: “This is our third version of ‘Snow White.’ Our first production was for family audiences in Carroll Gardens in 2008. Then we did a new version in 2010. This new incarnation is obviously for adults. Our version is based primarily on that of the Brothers Grimm. Our cast member Lea Helle is a native German speaker, so she was able to help us with the original German text as source material. The original version is terrifying. It’s more gruesome and has more scary imagery than the usual children’s editions, and we’re embracing that more. In our version the Queen is Snow White’s mother, not her stepmother.”
Fairy tales, says McCormick, are “perfect frames for performance. They contain classical themes and familiar elements that everyone can understand and challenge. The challenge is in taking something people associate with childhood and revamping it in a sexy environment for grownups. But we still want what kids bring to the theatre, a willingness to be transported to a world of make-believe.”
The Company XIV version centers around the Queen, as portrayed by Laura Careless, who attended Juilliard with McCormack. “I saw her in a ballet there,” he recalls, “and something just clicked, and we’ve worked together ever since. She’s not just a dancer, but more like an actress who’s dancing; she invests a lot of personal context into her movement. We push each other. It’s a true collaboration. She’s definitely a muse to me.”
Providing “more edge than usual” for the title role is recent SUNY Purchase graduate and first-season Company member Hilly Bodin. “Snow White is often cast as a young ingénue,” says McCormick. “I wanted somebody with more edge than usual, a Snow White who is interested in being seduced, who is moving towards temptation. Here, she is kind of a protégé of the Queen, and the Queen loves and admires her.”
And the audience is entranced by them both!
Through Mar. 12 at the Minetta Lane Theatre (18 Minetta Lane, btw. MacDougal St. & Sixth Ave.). Performances are Tues.–Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 5 p.m. For tickets ($40-$65, premium VIP seating $75-$105), visit ticketmaster.com or call 800-745-3000. “$30 Under 30!” rush tickets available at the box office beginning two hours prior to curtain for patrons under the age of 30. Limit of one ticket per ID. The show contains partial nudity — 16 & over admitted only. For more info, visit CompanyXIV.com.