Off The Cuffs

Snow White
Presented by: Company XIV – http://www.companyxiv.com
in association with Liberty Theaters, LLC :
Under the Direction of Margaret Cotter
Conceived, Choreographed and Directed by: Austin McCormick
Featuring: Hilly Bodin, Marisol Cabrera, Laura Careless,
Courtney Giannone, Lea Helle, Nicholas Katen, Malik Shabazz Kitchen, Mark Osmundsen, Davon Rainey, March Richardson

Ran: January 26th – March 12th
Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane
New York, NY 10012

By Louis DeVaughn Nelson
@hokum_arts

PHOTOS: Courtesy Company XIV, Benjamin Riley – http://www.benrileystudio.com

“More tease, less strip!” was a common phrase I would shout at my classically trained dancers, sometimes strippers, performers every once in a while, and part time whatever else they could do with their many talents to make ends meet. That was over a decade ago when Cher and Christina Aguilera’s Burlesque movie hadn’t yet made the art form more acceptable to mass appeal audiences and the film Chicago had just made it more accessible.

I was then working for the award-wining Peekaboo Revue (Philadelphia, PA), deemed a neo-burlesque troupe that was just as much ahead of its time as it was reliving the past. 2002 sparked the inaugural New York Burlesque Festival in which the burgeoning cabaret scene began to (once again) celebrate the entertainment value of the good old-fashioned “leg shows” and “good clean fun” of the American Vaudeville era when a few pence would allow you all day access to a bevy of bump & grind and sideshow acts.

Courtesy of the NYBF, troupes from all over the country (along with a few international groups) congregated in a place where society was starving for a bit more bang for their buck in the post 9/11 live life till it runneth over climate. While the frank association of T&A is synonymous with burlesque – the artful spectacle of the experience will always remain a big draw. During the first festival there was a lot of pageantry and couture costumes, but the most memorable and engaging performances were those who pushed skin and the desire to get under it in new and innovative ways utilizing inspiration from avant garde technique.

 

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Winner of a New York Innovative Theater Award for Best Choreography, Austin McCormick founded Company XIV based on these principles during the very same year the NYBF began. With a background as a former dancer with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet of New York along with many other accolades in the theater/dance performance world, McCormick has served up contributions to several opera houses in direction and choreography: The Lyric Opera of Chicago, The Houston Grand Opera, and Canadian Opera Company…

What he does with Company XIV along with co-founder, Laura Careless, who passionately graces the stage of the their latest enthralling installment, is nothing short of spectacular; a simple Google search will retrieve a plethora of poetic pieces acclaimed by critics from The British Theatre Guide to The New York Times. Recreating and staging the classics, fairytales and ballets is commonplace in the burlesque community, so standing out and wowing jaded audiences is a feat in itself.

Case in point: I first heard about Company XIV from a theater artist in New York who proclaimed that there was nothing like it in the city and the meticulous effort they put into each and every show is astounding. Having had the ambitious undertaking of managing expectations in so many regards in my work with The Peekaboo Revue (my girls/boys had a lot of brilliant ideas, some too racy for audiences), I did my best not to roll my eyes at this statement, especially after seeing the Kleine Nachtrevue of Berlin, Germany – possibly the capital of burlesque it its true and original and perhaps most enjoyable form. The decadent depiction Bob Fosse presented in the film version of Cabaret still reigns today in this day and age (sans the Nazis).

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“Well, I saw a ballerina dressed up as a construction worker use a handsaw to cut metal of off herself, and that was her striptease, so…”

“They do amazing things, like one girl sings opera while she is pole dancing,” my ears perked up and he continued, “but I’ve seen it a few times and would love to see something else. But I go to all of their shows.”

That’s the thing about these burlesquers. The whole “You Gotta Have A Gimmick” is a necessary part of the craft. There are many details and hours and hours of repetitive rehearsals these performers must endure in order to perfect their tricks. There is a delicate balance between overdoing it and making sure you are accommodating an audience who are used to seeing a certain “gimmick”. It is very hard to raise the ante each time, which is why so many burlesque troupes stick to a certain style or aesthetic.

About a week later I met one of the company’s management partners at a theater networking event. The conversation went on and on about the style and content of this particular troupe. Not only was this serendipitous but it seemed this was one of the hottest tickets in town.

When I arrived (on a Tuesday) at the Minetta Lane Theatre, I was taken aback by the sheer number of folks lined up on another one of those little streets tucked away just off Broadway where patrons can congregate before the house opens and let the pre-show excitement wash over them. It was Tuesday, right?

The show started before it began. There was an air about the place which afforded a certain hospitable acceptance and an environment that allowed folks to bustle around the theatre (with drinks in hand no less) holding conversations while the performers were getting ready on the baroque adorned stage and walking around the audience scantily clad. It felt like home and it felt otherworldly.

The devious smiles of the cigarette girls and the burlesquers acknowledging but not addressing the audience from on stage while they warmed up and primped – was a sight to behold. And then the magic came in the most shocking but not surprising way.

“Guten Abend,” began one of the many mistresses of the cabaret whose genres were all over the map and back again, utilizing live video performance, ballet, modern dance, contemporary dance, tap dance, puppetry, circus arts, tango, pole dancing, opera, flamenco, marionettes, live music, kabuki, Cyr wheel, pop performance, and many other mediums. Oh! And some striptease.

Taking the classic German fairytale and melding it into the modern world with traditional sensibilities without a speck of fault is almost impossible to believe, even with so many momentary suspensions of. There can only be one complaint about Company XIV’s Snow White : overkill.

The twists and turns are irrebuttable in their presentation, leaving the audience almost dizzy from how much is fit into the show. There are many intellectual bombs thrown on stage but not just for the hell of it – each and every iota is a well-focused form of exquisite expression. At the risk of being trite, it would have been nice to have reverted back to the art form’s pioneers and dumbed it down a little. There were a few very raw and a bit naughty parts that shined through, almost a taunt more than a tease, which could have been expounded as not to forget where we came from.

“Yeah, but when do I get to take off my clothes?” one of my favorite girls used to say to me incessantly when I was working with The Peekaboo Revue before I left for Berlin in 2011. While I appreciated her zealousness to bare all in so many ways (almost as much as the audience), it was a lesson learned for the both of us. The visual appeal has to be balanced with the artistic.

Her name was Melissa Bang-Bang (a moniker derivative of a certain gimmick she evoked with her backside) and after Snow White I approached the stage to personally thank the show’s brightest star who played the queen, aforementioned Laura Careless, who had the least amount of tricks up her sleeve and managed to steal the show with her provocative reprieve.

Bang Bang

“You renewed my passion for the art form. I used to work in burlesque and one of my favorite girls just died a little over a month ago. You remind me of her a lot, you have the same spirit about you on stage,” I gushed and received a blush.

The company ended its season on so many high notes and now Austin McCormick is on to produce work for the Metropolitan Opera. Be sure to catch Company XIV when they get revved up again. Their shows typically sell-out, so plan ahead!