For scale, intricacy, and sheer extravagance, Austin McCormick’s dance-theater troupe Company XIV is tough to beat. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how this scarily talented team can stage three shows in one season. Snow White is indeed the third and final production of the company’s 2015-2016 season. I’m happy to report that it retains the company’s trademark circus and cabaret elements, eclectic music selections with live singing, and fairy-tale inspiration, while brings something a bit different to the stage too.
Cinderella, the troupe’s last show, may have been its most extraordinary to date. The one thing I missed in it was the presence of founding member Laura Careless, who has performed principal dance roles in numerous Company XIV productions over the past decade. For Snow White, Careless is back, this time not in an ingenue role but as the Queen. Undertaking the title role is another remarkable dancer, Hilly Bodin, new to Company XIV this season.
The Queen is the biggest and most flamboyant character here, driven to extremes by jealousy. Careless impresses mightily as always, endowing her numerous feature dances with slick, intense energy and a fiery presence that suggests Judy Garland in a nasty mood. Meanwhile Bodin, topped with a crew cut, embodies with an innocent, flowery flair the ultra-naïve, kind of stupid Snow White McCormick has imagined.
Soprano and aerialist Marcy Richardson contributes smooth, steady, beautifully toned bell-like vocals whether she’s singing opera or Britney Spears. Typically for Company XIV, the score ranges from baroque to arty to shiny pop: Marais, Bach, Mozart, Debussy, Spanish dance music, Tove Lo.
Somewhat atypically, Act I in particular focuses closely on character instead of spectacle and wide-angle storytelling. With hardly a word – except for the Queen’s repeated, increasingly desperate queries to her mirror of “Who’s the fairest of us all?” – both main characters come viscerally alive. We can sympathize with the Queen, dominated addict-like by the Green Monster, and with sweet Snow White, trusting and sensuous and, yes, incipiently vain herself.
With the focus on the two lead characters, the dwarves appear only as tiny cut-out puppets, and the Prince arrives as something of an afterthought, though Courtney Giannone provides an impressive Cyr wheel performance in the role, part of the acrobatic sequence that lifts the second half into new heights of wonder.
The company has offered similar circus acts before. There are impressive performances on hoops, ropes, and poles. But it all has the benefit of McMormick’s unique vision: polyglot but tonally consistent, amalgamating circus, ballet, cabaret, opera, and burlesque into explosive narratives that are always unmistakably his.
This Snow White adds a new depth of character development thanks to thrillingly inventive choreography and searing dancing by the two leads, reinforced by the strong, graceful talents of the company. Extravagant costumes, props, sound, score and lighting create a crazy, raunchy, sparkling, elevated world (though there was a scary excess of smoke near the end).
For this show the team has also added strikingly effective projections, courtesy of lighting designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew. They’re mostly on a screen made of hanging filaments, but in one climactic scene they move to another kind of surface entirely. I won’t give that away.
Instead, here’s a tidbit that reveals in a humorous, minor sort of way the ethos of the company: Where most shows would create a Bearded Lady by putting a fake beard on a woman, Company XIV puts that fake beard along with fake breasts on a clean-shaven male dancer. It’s a tiny detail emblematic of the troupe’s endlessly, massively original creativity.