Company XIV‘s dance-theater productions have turned the company’s unconventional space by the Gowanus Canal into a lively center for imaginative, exotic, and highly original art. Their newest effort, Judge Me Paris – conceived, directed, and choreographed by company founder Austin McCormick and presented in tandem with Morningside Opera and the musical group SIREN Baroque – continues what has become the Company XIV tradition of graceful fusions of baroque and modern dance, innovative stagecraft, raunchy storytelling, and music both ancient and relatively modern. It also adds an interesting layer of technology, with oddly effective gigantic projections of the cast’s faces as they move and sing, suitably conveying both the outsize presence of the gods and the extreme physicality of this particular ancient episode.
In the mythical story of the Judgement of Paris, an indecisive Zeus thrusts a young mortal by that name into the role of adjudicator of heavenly beauty, challenging him to select which of three goddesses – Hera (Roman Juno), Pallas Athena, and Aphrodite (Roman Venus) – as the most lovely. Paris chooses Venus, goddess of love, when she offers him the bribe of the most beautiful mortal woman in the world, Helen, as his wife. The ensuing abduction of Helen from Greece triggers the Trojan War, the rest being, as they say, history.
A lowbrow Zeus (“I’m Zeus, goddamn it”) narrates, played by a jovially scruffy Jeff Takacs, veteran of past Company XIV productions and a writer who has contributed some of the text. Paris, by contrast, says nothing; a wonderful dancer named Sean Gannon expresses all the youth’s wide-eyed wonderments purely with movement, prancing through athletic and sometimes roughly sexual dances with the female attendants of the three goddesses in turn.
Three superb singers, Amber Youell, Brett Umlauf, and Brittany Palmer, sing the roles of the deities with vocal quality and skill of the highest order; Umlauf shows especial versatility as Athena, conveying domineering military command and then delivering pretty, fluttery melodies with exquisite perfection. These operatic parts of the score come from settings of William Congreve’s libretto The Judgement of Paris by the baroque English composers John Eccles and John Weldon, and it is delightful music, accompanied by the harpsichord, cello, and two violins of SIREN Baroque.
The night I attended, an incident of imperfect intonation on the part of the skillful string players occurred towards the end, as Helen herself (Laura Careless, an exceptional dancer in a disappointingly minimal role) began her extremely slow procession into Paris’s life. At that moment, the violinists were playing in almost total darkness, a possible excuse for the failure of tonality that leads me to the one problem I had with the show. Most of the story is staged in dim light, and while this sets an atmosphere of mystery appropriate to Paris’s induction into the world of the gods, it is also abetted for several long segments by overabundant use of a smoke machine. Low light combined with dense fog results in so much atmosphere it gets in your nose and eyes and makes it hard to appreciate the frequently stunning creative movement playing out before you.
When the darkness works, it really works, as when Venus presents herself to Paris. First she appears among her dancing attendants in a pattern suggesting her famous depiction riding a shell through the sea; then she’s ensconced before large, very dimly purple-lit mirrors. After having witnessed Paris dancing in the throes of ecstasy with Juno and Pallas and their ladies, we expect his climactic encounter with the goddess of love to be bathed in brilliance to match that deity’s fluffy platinum hair and expressive burlesque beauty. Instead: deeper mystery.
Other highlights included Paris’s introductory martial-style dance to Marin Marais’s haunting “Sonnerie De Ste. Geneviève Du Mont-De-Paris,” Juno’s ability to swing gracefully through various smoky dance moves while wearing a hoop suggesting enormous hips (goddess of fertility, after all), and the coquettish dance depicting Mercury’s (the graceful Cailan Orn) delivery of the prize golden apple to Paris.
As always in my experience with Company XIV, this is a show well worth seeing, part dance, part costume drama, part musical exhibition, and part bawdy burlesque. I just would have liked to see it a little more clearly. Judge Me Paris runs through May 27 at the 303 Bond St. Theatre, Brooklyn NY. For ticket information click here.
Photos by Corey Tatarczuk.