303 Bond Street Theatre
Brooklyn, New York
January 8, 2011
By Michael Popkin
Copyright 2012 by Michael Popkin
Even though Company XIV’s “Snow White” opulent costumes, sets, dances, and props all allude heavily to the baroque style of Louis XIV (like the company’s name), it doesn’t look or feel pretentious. Director Austin McCormick keeps the story moving, and the circus and vaudeville at the heart of the show doesn’t take itself too seriously.
In the familiar story from the Brothers Grimm, a wicked Queen persecutes her beautiful stepdaughter. When her magic mirror tells her repeatedly that Snow White is fairer, she engages in an elaborate series of attempts on her life. The six back and forth dialogues with the mirror are the production’s backbone. Using video, a large image of the Queen’s face – undulating like a reflection in water that looked like Galadriel’s mirror in “Lord of the Rings” – was projected on the floor and then overlaid with fleeting images of Snow White, while amplified voices recited the mantra of the Queen’s repeated questions and the mirror’s answers. At the end of each such mirror scene, the Queen concocted another stratagem to kill Snow White – now sending out her huntsman as an assassin, now preparing a poisoned girdle, comb or apple. The dramas of each of Snow White’s escapes; her eventual death; and finally her revival by and marriage to the handsome prince were then played out in a series of narrative dance scenes for the entire company.
These pas d’action carried the show. Before they started about twenty minutes in, the plot and characters didn’t have much inherent interest and the mise-en-scène hadn’t added any. But with the mirror scenes and their succeeding dances the extra something arrived. Each ensemble was in a ballet-character dance idiom and had the entire company of ten or eleven costumed as Jean Paul Gaultier might reimagine French, Spanish or Slavic dress, with White as the principal performer leavening the loaf with her blend of circus flying and ballet.
The hunt scene - a wild number during a snowstorm in the woods – had Snow White escaping from the murderous huntsman to a pop tune by “Outside.” At the beginning, an acrobat’s ring on a wire was suspended from the flies and tethered at the corner of the stage. Surrounded at first by a whirl of action and also by other dancers costumed as stags with antlered headdresses, White unfastened the ring and took to the air, so that her circus flying grew organically out of the action. Her performance was a tour de force; her extensions and poses in the air were effortless and displayed balletic line. McEachern shimmied up a bolt of white cloth that was part of the snowstorm representation to perform on high in visual counterpoint. During the mirror scene that followed, White remained visible, dozing peacefully on her wire ring above the corner of the stage.
In the French dance (to Gounod’s waltz air “Je Veux Vivre” beautifully sung by coloratura soprano Lauren-Michelle ) the ensemble was dressed à la Versailles, circa 1672 but with a whiff of S & M, as the Queen concocted a corset so tight it would smother Snow White. The Spanish dance began with a flamenco and the Slavic/Gypsy dance was a czardas; Snow White, poisoned by an apple, died after a pas that ended with her turning suspended by a single foot from her wire ring. McEachern entered as the prince and, after an impossibly acrobatic number in a hoop, climbed the wire and revived her with a kiss, leading to an aerial pas de deux. Swallow lifts that had White doing handstands supported by McEachern, while he stood on another performer’s shoulders, were also mixed in but made to seem expressive of triumph and redemptive love rather than independent circus tricks.
The final wedding scene also showed the Queen’s appropriately horrible downfall after she unwisely accepted a pair of red hot shoes as a party favor. Laura Careless, a company regular who’s both a strong actress and dancer, was appropriately sinister.
The degree that the show depended on the company’s signature brand of dramatic treatment (including the felicitously named White’s blend of circus and dance skills) to add spice to a children’s story cannot be exaggerated and also raises the question of where McCormick can go from here. He’s brilliant at updating the baroque dances of the Louis XIV era that provide his greatest inspiration, but they exist mostly as a subsidiary part of the operas, comedies and mythical spectacles of the period. There aren’t enough fairy tales to go around and he lacks the orchestra, singers and other resources for straightforward opera. The very extensive lost ballets in Molière’s lesser works such as “L’Amour Médecin,” “La Princesse d’Élide,” and “Pastorale Comique” are naturals for his treatment. They would surely appeal to him but would require a pliant naturalistic comedy of manners beyond the company’s current acting range as would the declamation in heroic verse necessary for spectacles like the Molière/Corneille “Psyché” or Corneille’s “La Toison d’Or.” On the other hand, he’s already treated a commedia dell’arte subject in “Pinocchio” and that’s a direction – with its broad comedy, bawdiness and slapstick - that opens more extensive vistas. Whichever way he goes, it’s going to be interesting.
Photographs by Steven Schreiber: Top – Gracie White as Snow White and Laura Careless as the Queen;” Bottom – Gracie White and cast, in Company XIV’s production of “Snow White”