Read about NYC's best theatre and dance productions and watch video interviews with innovative artists
What if you took everything in our culture that was indebted to Cinderella and put it on a single stage? Just think of all the songs, ballets, fancy shoes, and enchanted mice you'd have to account for. In one sense, you'd be confronted with aesthetic chaos, but in another, you'd experience a carnival of genres that cohered into a familiar story.
Somewhere between those extremes, you get the latest show from Company XIV.
The dance-theatre troupe is staging its own version of Cinderella through mid-November at the Minetta Lane Theatre, and it's bursting with references and styles. In three acts and two lively entr'actes, the tale of the would-be princess is rendered with everything from baroque dance to circus routines, and the characters include a wicked stepmother who dances the Charleston and a fairy godmother who croons an indie-pop ballad while wearing a cluster of gold balloons like a floating crown.
Along the way, there are also remarkable moments of choreography, like a pas de deux between Cinderella and Prince Charming that happens on a spiral staircase and a group number at the royal ball that blends courtly dance with innovative mask work.
As disparate as they might seem, these elements do indeed coalesce into a sensual whole. By filtering it through so many reference points, Company XIV suggests how deeply we've internalized the story's implicit theme of erotic awakening.
Or to put it another way, the production proves that a classic fairy tale makes perfect sense as an adults-only mélange.
The source material is no accident. Austin McCormick, Company XIV's choreographer and artistic director, works with fairy tales and fables for almost all of his productions. (The rest of the troupe's season includes reinterpretations of Snow White and The Nutcracker.) "In working on shows that have the fairy tale theme, you pull a thread and see that everything's tied to it," he says. "Everything can be connected to the story. It's so rich with archetypes that we never stop encountering in our lives."
This interconnectedness is reflected in how clearly the audience is invited into the show. In the entr'actes, for instance, comely staff members might wander around selling fancy drinks, and performers might sing Andrews Sisters-style numbers while snuggling on patrons' laps. Meanwhile, we frequently catch glimpses of the backstage area, letting us see costume changes and the setting of props. We can also notice unusual objects – a gold bathtub, a giant carousel horse – and wonder how they'll be used later on.
"I'm always interested in the act of putting on the show," McCormick says. "I remember that I used to dance at the Met, in the opera, and I used to be in the wings, seeing all the things that go into set changes and all this backstage craziness. And I would think, 'God, it's fascinating what people go through to put on the show. If the audience could see this, they'd be so interested.'"
For all this careful reasoning, though, Company XIV also relies on improvisation and surprise. Some of the most resonant moments of Cinderella were discovered during technical rehearsals, including that staircase pas de deux. The staircase wasn't installed on the set until the last minute, and when he finally saw it, McCormick knew he needed to create a piece on it. "I love that [that dance] had to be made so quickly," he says. "Relying on instincts can bring out something really exciting."
The cast members also get to shape the material. Take the funny/gaudy scene where Cinderella's stepsisters celebrate their own fabulousness by singing a French translation of Lorde's hit song "Royals." That idea came from performer Brett Umlauf, who was riffing about her character with McCormick. Marcy Richardson, who plays the other stepsister, also helped shape her standout number, when she sings an aria by Charles Gounod while doing a complicated gymnastic routine on a metal pole.
According to McCormick, a show like this requires that level of involvement. "I tend to cast people that are adventurous and interested in pushing themselves," he says. "If you're going to climb a pole and sing Faust in a split, you've got to be on board."
Top photo – of Steven Trumon Gray as Prince Charming and Allison Ulrich as Cinderella – by Nir Arieli. Photo of Ulrich in a birdcage by Mark Shelby Perry. Photo of Marcy Richardson and cast by Phillip Van Nostrand.