LifeSo this is love: Fairytale meets kink in a new, gender-bent ‘Cinderella’
With ballet, burlesque and a touch of BDSM, director Austin McCormick uproots old ideologies with some wicked new twists.
Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane, New York, NY 10012
COMPANY XIV continues to garner critical acclaim in New York and internationally for their unique fusion of passionate choreography, eclectic music, opera, circus, burlesque, ballet, gender bending, over the top costuming, and sumptuous design. Taking his cue from theatre/dance/opera under the reign of French monarch Louis XIV, Director/Choreographer Austin McCormick creates compelling 360-degree experiences for audiences fusing the antique with the contemporary. Company XIV has been nominated for a Bessie Award, Innovative Theater Awards and Drama Desk Awards.
Purchase tickets for Cinderella here, October 6 - November 15th.
Cinderella is an ancient tale grappling with the fact that nothing lasts forever; even the panacean magic cast by a miraculous apparition cannot make it past the stroke of midnight. Yet, the story has persisted for over a millennium. In keeping with their motto to create “compelling 360-degree experiences for audiences fusing the antique with the contemporary,” Company XIV manages to adapt the Cinderella narrative from time immemorial into a sexy, contemporary, thought-provoking night at the Minetta Lane Theater in New York’s Greenwich Village.
There's something for everyone to love in this rendition: burlesque, ballet, circus tricks, cheeky baroque costuming, gender-bending sexuality and pop songs turned into Broadway-worthy ballads. The players of Company XIV are classically trained theatrical libertines who tempt, delight and pull the audience into their performances. Mark Osmanson, a Company XIV member, tells Hopes&Fears, “It's a wonderful opportunity to be transformed into this different world, to allow for your body to be explored. To allow for an exploration of your sexuality. It’s basically a cake show. We got a sweet tooth and we’re willing to share it.”
The Cinderella story we’re familiar with today comes from European folktale adaptations based off its earliest recorded incarnation, Rhodopis, in the sixth century B.C. It's a familiar story; while bathing in a river, Rhodopis’ shoe is stolen by an eagle and dropped at the foot of the King of Egypt, who searches the land for her and asks for her hand in marriage. But its most popular iteration was written by Charles Perrault in 1697 under the name Cendrillon, which introduced now-conventional tropes of the magic pumpkin, the fairy godmother and, most notably, the glass slippers. However, our modern Cinderella wipes the original story squeaky clean; in the ancient tale, Rhodopis is a hetaera, an elevated type of Greek courtesan. Although the hetaera engaged in sexual relations with their patrons, they were not simply prostitutes; they were educated, sophisticated female companions, and were the only women allowed to express their opinion when the symposium discussed philosophy, politics, poetry and the issues of the day. Rhodopis is a wise-cracking, sexually voracious, stealer of hearts—a 180-degree turn from the naïve, gentle, whitewashed version of Cinderella made popular by Disney. Company XIV gives the tale its sexuality and otherworldly nature back.
The show opens on the Stepmother, played by Davon Rainey, a gender-bending choice by Company XIV director Austin McCormick that immediately sets the tone of the performance as a Cinderella tale like no other. "I think Austin’s decision to have Davon, who is a man, play the Stepmother is genius. It changes the entire narrative,” Allison Ulrich, who plays Cinderella, tells Hopes&Fears. “Usually when professional ballet companies like the New York City Ballet or ABT cast Cinderella, the sisters are men but never the Stepmother, because the Stepmother is always portrayed as this higher being [which classically demands a gender-consistent performer]. But we threw that outmoded notion out the window.”
Rainey commences the show with a face wrapped in bandages, then dances his way out of them to reveal a beautiful new face. "My character starts the show having just come from facial surgery. It’s clear that I want to be more of a woman,” Rainey tells Hopes&Fears. “I think my character has always been a man, even when Cinderella’s father first met me; I was cross dressing, but I wanted to be a woman, so I took his money after we got married and started getting surgeries. But when he died, I just thought, well, might as well continue getting more surgeries so I can be pretty and try to get another man." In this way, McCormick revisits the “ever after” portion of the Rhodopis tale, which follows the hetaera as she moves from one affair to the next—from the lap of fellow slave and fable-maker Aesop, to that of Charaxus, brother of the poet Sappho. In fact, Sappho later wrote a poem accusing Rhodopis of robbing Charaxus of his property—a clear inspiration for the jealous stepsisters in later renditions.
The opening act of the show is a lot of the Stepmother and her daughters, the Evil Stepsisters, singing and dancing around as they torment Cinderella. When prepping for the ball, the malevolent threesome play a cruel trick on our protagonist, costuming her in beautiful wings, as if inviting her along, before throwing her into a giant birdcage as they cackle away into the night. On the surface, it’s the usual unexplained villainy that drives most interpretations of the story. But Rainey explains that it's more nuanced than that. "My character has this jealousy of Cinderella,” Rainey says. “I feel like I see myself in Cinderella. My take on it is that I’d love to see my daughters marry the Prince, but secretly I want it to be me.” And with his generously glamorous performance—inspired by a mix of Joan Crawford, Faye Dunaway and Tina Turner, according to Rainey—it’s easy to want the Stepmother to win.
Rainey’s drive behind his character’s decisions creates this unexpected empathy. “I feel like my character actually thinks she's a good mother, but she’s too overwhelmed with uncertainty and she reacts in violent ways,” Rainey explains. “She’s sad because she realizes she’s getting older and she’s wondering why her tricks no longer work.” The Stepmother’s manic need for attention explodes from this perspective, creating a BDSM-like dynamic between her and her forced subservient, Cinderella.
Ulrich’s Cinderella is pretty, naïve and naturally submissive; she serves with unquestioning devotion and trust. Ulrich says that tricking Cinderella into the birdcage is an ultimate betrayal, a decision to do a devious thing for the sake of being devious. Alone in the cage, Cinderella faces her darkest moment, but it's also the catalyst for her radically erotic awakening. Enter the tale's magical mice, bedecked in sequined bras, jockstraps and heels. Following them is the Fairy Godmother, who extracts Cinderella from her cage and entices her into a sexual encounter. Played by Katrina Cunningham, the lesbian Fairy Godmother is perhaps one of the show’s greatest reconceptualizations, bringing a far more complicated relationship to the story. “I’m a real life lesbian, and I was very excited to play this role and give her more of a truth than the Disney version has given her,” Cunningham tells Hopes&Fears. “I imagine the Fairy Godmother has lived forever and she has tried to love and failed with many other Cinderellas, but despite it all, she has sincere hope this one will be different. She hopes this Cinderella will be the one to love her back.”
Instead of “Bippity Boppity Boo,” this Godmother shows Cinderella how to “work it,” dancing and grinding her away from the naïve sycophant she was when thrown into the cage. The Fairy Godmother shows Cinderella sexuality and love. Cunningham explains, "I touch her for the first time in a way that makes her feel good." And, surprise, with her sexual awakening comes a sense of empowerment; for the first time Cinderella is able to feel herself and see herself as an attractive woman. And just as Cunningham’s Godmother fears, she takes her newfound power and runs straight to the ball with it.
Once at the ball we meet the Prince, played by Steven Trumon Gray. He is splayed out, shirtless in a grungy clawfoot tub, surrounded by mostly naked androgynous servants. He takes cues from famed hedonist Caligula, with all the heated sexuality and serial boredom. The ball scene plays out classically, with all characters fawning and fighting over a very unimpressed Prince. It’s here where McCormick’s choice to have the Godmother fall in love with Cinderella shows its genius. The Godmother watches the inevitable unfold as Cinderella and the Prince play out their roles, as she drinks her newest heartbreak away in the background. “I realize she’s just like all the other Cinderellas I’ve ever had, so I decide to take it away,” Cunningham says. “Midnight is my way of taking it all back."
↑ Company XIV's Cinderella, 2015.
Photograph by Mark Shelby Perry
At the stroke of midnight, the action on stage descends into madness, with the Godmother turning wicked with anguish. Cinderella loses her shoe, and thus begins a raucous, over-the-top scene wherein the Prince chases the found slipper down a Warhol Factory-like rabbit hole. Rainey brilliantly darts from Stepmom to Show Mom, presenting her daughters to the Prince, who each perform riveting, hypersexual shows to try to win his heart. When they both fail the slipper test, Rainey moves from Show Mom to full-on seductress, taking the opportunity to finally live out her dream and take the Prince home. With all the boisterous hilarity a drag act can muster, we once again find ourselves rooting for the Stepmother, who grinds and fellates her way into the Prince’s path. But the story must play on, and Cinderella enters the scene to stomp on her Stepmother’s dreams with two glass slippers. Victorious, Cinderella joins the Prince for an aerial hoop performance, and the rest of the cast fades away as they dangle over the stage, exploring their fate.
But the victory is short-lived. The house lights come up, the cast deflates, and the set is deconstructed. Godmother, Stepmother and Prince shrug Cinderella off as she runs around trying to engage them in life after fairytale, but “The End” is ultimately the end. The Fairy Godmother performs a dark, sultry rendition of “Walking After Midnight,” seemingly taunting the now-exiled Cinderella. “By the very end [the Godmother] sees the relationship between Cinderella and the Prince has reached its climax. So she takes the opportunity to remind her that she was the first to give it to her and she can always take it back,” Cunningham says. “Performing 'Walking After Midnight' as the last song is my way of telling Cinderella, ‘I’m here, and I’m gonna remain here. But it’s over for you!’” Ultimately it’s up to the audience to decide what the ending means, Cunningham says, but one point, she notes, is clear: “In the end, everything beautiful fades away."
Speaking to the cast after the show, it’s obvious that the company has formed a deep sense of community. Each player is valued for their talents and encouraged to help expand how their characters are portrayed. “We all play a role in conceiving and dreaming up the characters we take on, and because of that we could take the Cinderella narrative in a whole new direction,” Cunningham says.
Rainey agrees. "I feel like the way we portray this narrative also brings up what’s happening in the world with jealousy and bullying and people not accepting people who are different. It’s definitely a theme we’re open to and exploring." It really feels as though it could’ve happened this time; that perhaps instead of playing out whitewashed ideologies, Cinderella actually falls in love with her magical Godmother, and the Stepmother, in all her queerness, wins over the Prince.
Cover Photographby Nir Arieli
Editor: Gabriella Garcia