Performance

A Sultry and Subversive ‘Snow White,’ with Ball Gags and Pole Dancing

Hilly Bodin as Snow White (center), Laura Careless as The Queen (second from right) and the cast of Company XIV’s 'Snow White' (all photos by Mark Shelby Perry and courtesy Company XIV)
Hilly Bodin as Snow White (center), Laura Careless as The Queen (second from right) and the cast of Company XIV’s ‘Snow White’ (all photos by Mark Shelby Perry and courtesy Company XIV)

How many times you heard the tale of Snow White? Surely you remember the pole dancing, the wigs made of large birdcages, and the lithe male bodies dusted with gold. No? However you remember it, that’s what director and choreographer Austin McCormick has manifested in Company XIV’s decadent dance-theater-burlesque Snow White, currently at the Minetta Lane Theatre.

Combining scantily-clad bodies with the enduring power dynamic of an Evil Queen wishing to best her beautiful daughter, this Snow White sets itself up nicely for kinky undertones. This is clear from the beginning dance between the Queen (Laura Careless, in an excellent and transfixing performance) and her male servants (or are they lovers?). Sporting spiky blonde wigs straight out of a Sia music video and crystal-encrusted ball gags, the male dancers are pushed, pulled, and stepped on all while maintaining a seductive allure over the Queen.

If it wasn’t already clear, the general tone of this Snow White is seedy and sordid — a far cry from cheery animated dwarves. The set resembles a nightclub with a visible dressing room area, and many portions of the story are stylized as performance routines. This framing smartly allows the piece to move seamlessly between dance for dance’s sake and more narrative-driven movement.

There’s a bit of dialogue in Snow White, but the bulk of it is in German. I initially attributed this choice to a Weimar cabaret influence, but the original Brothers Grimm fairy tale is also German in origin. However, the spoken text includes a smart smattering of English phrases to keep even the ignorant following.

Laura Careless as The Queen
Laura Careless as The Queen in Company XIV’s ‘Snow White’

The plot, aside from occasional pole dancing interludes, remains generally very faithful to the Brothers Grimm original. Yes, one of the Queen’s tactics to murder Snow White and become the fairest in the land was always to disguise herself as a corset seller. It’s almost as if the tale was made to be turned into a sultry visual feast.

And this visual feast is decadent, though it isn’t all dark and sexy. Some of it ventures into comic spectacle, such as an operatic rendition of Britney Spears’s “Toxic” during one of the Queen’s attempts to seduce Snow White to her doom. Others feature flamenco, puppetry, live video feeds, a long sequence in which a coffin is crafted out of saran wrap, and a circus sideshow. Some of it feels tonally strange or excessive (the Queen’s magic mirror as the same repeating video gets tiresome), but generally Company XIV does an impressive job flirting with camp, cheesiness, and spectacle while remaining self-aware. Snow White is also excellently (and prolifically) costumed by Zane Pihlstrom, who also did the set.

The “adults only” warning plastered over the show’s press releases is intriguing. Perhaps it’s to dissuade folks from bringing their wee ones, but then again it, would be a bit of a stretch to glance at the show’s promotional photos and deduce a juvenile target audience. Yes, the descriptors warn of only partial nudity, but what defines partial, and what makes a performance suitable for only adults? A thong? A breast, sans visible nipple? A leather mask? I went into the show expecting something much more salacious than I received, which is fine, but it seems reductive to make a spectacle about it just being “naughty.” Sure, it was steamy at times, but the dance, athleticism, and design at work in Snow White warrant equal attention.

Hilly Bodin as Snow White (seated) and Courtney Giannone as The Prince (standing) in Company XIV's 'Snow White' (click to enlarge)
Hilly Bodin as Snow White (seated) and Courtney Giannone as The Prince (standing) in Company XIV’s ‘Snow White’ (click to enlarge)

Coming into this show, I was prepared to see a bevy of perfect porcelain bodies and not much else. I was pleased to find certain subversive twists, most significantly in the casting of Snow White and her Prince. The titular character is played by Hilly Bodin, who dances en (and off) pointe gloriously while sporting a shaved head and an athletic frame, and her Prince is played by an androgynous woman, Courtney Giannone, who courts her with an overwhelmingly impressive wheel gymnastics routine. In the world of this Snow White, none of this seems strange; it’s just the way things are. How satisfying to experience the happy ending of a fairy tale (not the most radical or progressive genre) seamlessly queered.

Admittedly, this is the first Company XIV production I’ve seen. This show could be a predictable rehashing of a sexy fantasy-dance aesthetic they’ve done several times before. But as a new viewer, in Snow White I experienced a surprising interpretation of a classic tale that breathed new life into dance, a medium that I previously found tiresome. Next time I’m asked about Snow White, perhaps I’ll find myself reaching for the glitter instead of the storybook.

Company XIV’s Snow White continues at the Minetta Lane Theatre (18 Minetta Lane, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) through March 12.

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