Company XIV Combines Classic and Chic in an Exquisite Cinderella
Company XIV’s production of Cinderella is New York City theater at its finest. With a nod to the court of Louis the XIV and the grandiosity of Lully’s opera theater, Company XIV manages to preserve elements of the French Baroque while remaining totally innovative, and never—in fact, not once for the entire two and a half hour show—falls prey to the predictable. Not one detail is left to chance in this finely manicured yet earthily raw production of Cinderella.
Though the story remains faithful to the well-known and oft-interpreted Cinderella story, Company XIV dazzles the audience with novelty from every angle. The dancers move with the grace of trained ballet dancers while seamlessly shifting to modern dance, propelling their sculpted bodies in rhythmic thrusts. There’s the nod to the traditional movement of the court of Louis the XIV, particularly in the courtly scenes of the Prince’s ball, but only for a moment, after which the party devolves into a series of hypersexualized dance duos.
What’s most satisfying about it all, especially for the opera aficionado, is that it works. Of all the recent attempts to bring opera back into relevance or to recapture the excitement, sensuality, and titillation opera and ballet held for audiences in the Baroque Era, this production is the most successful. It combines sex with beauty, novelty with tradition, and never feels like an unconvincing effort to innovate innovation’s sake. It is sexy, it is innovative, and yet it’s still just the same fairy tale of Cinderella—except the audience is thrown between ecstasies of laughter, fascination, and confusing sympathies with characters usually given perfunctory depictions.
The true queen of the stage is Davon Rainey, playing the part of Cinderella’s Step-Mother. He manages to portray the fragility of a woman fearing the passing of time and the loss of her own beauty, while instantly snapping to a cruel, vindictive version of the classic evil step-mother. He sashays around the stage with equal parts feminine sexiness and masculine vitality, his body firm and robust with every sharply executed bit of choreography. The oscillation between the longing between hope for the success of her daughters combined with her own secret desires to retain her youth and sex appeal causes the Step-Mother to become one of the most compelling characters in the show. The final moment of Rainey strutting across the stage, staring concernedly into a mirror, with Cinderella dutifully at her side, is one of the most devastating and moving moments of the show. No longer a confusingly abusive foster mother for Cinderella as in the classic tale, the Step-Mother evokes simultaneous sympathy and disgust. Rainey inhabits this complex interpretation perfectly, bursting with an aggressive sexuality that’s both titillating and tragic.
Austin McCormick’s choreography is rife with symbolism and teeming with creativity, with profound commentary on not only the story of Cinderella but greater issues of heteronormative relationships and gender as a social construct. Cinderella (Allison Ulrich) spends the first half of Act I on her hands and knees into total servitude to her step-sisters (who first appear in a comedic, German cabaret-style entrance, the first of many brilliant syntheses of historical musical periods and art forms dreamt up by McCormick.) Ulrich spends most of Act I scurrying around, mouselike, as Cinderella endures abuse and ridicule by her step-mother and step-sisters, used by them as a literal footstool as the trio cackles their way through excess and frivolity. With Cinderella on her hands and knees, her step-sisters (Marcy Richardson and Brett Umlauf, two opera singers with bright and lovely sounds) sing joyfully of their enjoyment of the finer things in life, with a version of Lorde’s pop hit “Royal” so seamlessly rendered into classical-sounding duet that it took me a moment to register what was happening.
Katrina Cunningham (The Fairy Godmother) takes the stage by storm with a husky-voiced rendition of Lana del Ray’s “Born to Die,” and proves in a few fluid movements that she’s there not just to sing, but to dance. As a younger, sexier interpretation of The Fairy Godmother, she embraces Cinderella in an unforgettable dance duet that fluctuates between a struggle for sexual power and a sensual display of lovemaking. The duet leaves the atmosphere uncomfortably erotic right before the first of the “drink breaks” that broke up the acts of the evening. McCormick, seeming to never forget a thread in the story he’s weaving, allows The Fairy Godmother one last longing glance at her protégé, Cinderella, as she winds her body with the Prince in a display of consummation of their love at the end of Act III.
Ulrich takes the traditionally innocent-minded Cinderella and gives her a trajectory into truly realized womanhood during Acts II and III, her hair loose and her body open in acceptance of the Prince’s desires; the Prince, played smarmily by Steven Trumon Gray, croons beautifully before pulling himself up for a dance into the suspended ring, just in case the audience thought those rippling muscles were just for show. Richardson, Umlauf, and Rainey appear and reappear like mirages throughout the ball and the search for Cinderella, their antics to ensnare the Prince’s affections culminating in The Jewel Song from Gounod’s Faust. Sung beautifully by Marcy Richardson, this feat of physical and musical skill has to be seen to be believed. The ensemble struts across stage with large black narration cards, when they’re not busy dancing with finely executed fervor across the stage.
Company XIV’s production of Cinderella is a true modern Gesamtkunstwerk. No detail is left unforgotten, from the careful bedazzling of the Louis XIV-style dance shoes to the final spotlight on Cinderella, a fairytale maiden who learns that all dreams must end.
Originally published at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/11/company_xiv_com.php