The radiant center of all things | East Villager & Lower East Sider

The radiant center of all things

“Rococo Rouge” presents a succession of numbers, jaw-dropping in their beauty, rigorous precision, and illusion of effortlessness.  Photo by Phillip Van Nostrand

“Rococo Rouge” presents a succession of numbers, jaw-dropping in their beauty, rigorous precision, and illusion of effortlessness. Photo by Phillip Van Nostrand

BY TRAV S.D. (travsd.wordpress.com)  |  Company XIV has single-handedly spoiled it for all of the other New York indie theatre companies as far as I am concerned. They are so bloody good, they speak to me on so many levels, that the bar is too high for most of them to clear, and I’d just as soon stay home.

I first learned about the company when assigned to write a feature about them for this very paper back in 2010. Since then I’ve seen them about a half dozen times in venues ranging from the Minetta Lane Theatre to their former headquarters, which was unpleasantly situated near the headwaters of the Gowanus Canal. (Those waters are the very reason the company is no longer based at the Brooklyn location. They were among the unlikely victims of floods caused by Hurricane Sandy).

The displacement had a happy long-term result however, for now they have a splendorous new home. In early September they unveiled their new combination lounge and 100-seat theatre, simply called XIV, fortuitously located on Lafayette Street across from the Public Theater, and a couple of doors down from the Astor Place Theatre, long-time home of Blue Man Group. This little stretch of road is brimming with historical resonance and meaning — it’s been a center for theatrical activity for well over 150 years. The building they’re in on Colonnade Row dates to the 1830s.

New Lafayette St. space reflects Company XIV’s decadent aesthetic

A symbolic location like this is the perfect place for Company XIV to make their home base. The clue as to why is embedded in their name. The moniker is a nod to the pleasure-loving French monarch Louis XIV (1638-1715), affectionately known to posterity as the “Sun King,” because he aspired to be the radiant center of all things.

The resident Sun King of Company XIV is Austin McCormick, the company’s founder, artistic director and choreographer. McCormick was trained in the archaic art of Baroque dance, and that is the core of what he does, although he incorporates later artistic movements that resonate and productively speak to that original aesthetic, mixing in ideas from the Second Empire, Orientalism, the fin de siècle, Weimar, burlesque, and contemporary pop and hip hop. The bottom line is a striving for the beautiful and the sensual, and McCormick invokes all of the arts to achieve a kind of helpless intoxication: ballet and other types of dance, opera as well as more folkish song forms, poetry, costume, and lighting design all serving the same end.

“Rococo Rouge” opens on an elaborate court dance, the company decked out in carnal red, waving fans.  PhotoS by Phillip Van Nostrand

“Rococo Rouge” opens on an elaborate court dance, the company decked out in carnal red, waving fans. PhotoS by Phillip Van Nostrand

A marked feature of their work is the crossing of boundaries, the mixing together of many notions and ideas. Gender bending plays a strong role, as does the harmonious blending of black and white and the tongues of many lands — Spanish, Italian, German and French are spoken and sung almost as much as English in Company XIV productions. Darkness and light, humor and pain, fantasy and real-life spectacle are all swirled together.

In the tradition of masque and Carnival, Company XIV’s ritual of art is especially well-suited to holidays, and I’ve seen them do Christmas, Halloween and Valentine’s shows. Their aesthetic serves them all equally well. In fact, if you were to add the three holiday traditions together you might arrive at something like Company XIV.

One has always regretted the lack of an appropriate setting for this elegant troupe; now they have one. The new space reflects the company’s decadent aesthetic, sporting chandeliers, large ornamental gold crowns suspended from the ceiling (evoking their namesake), a blow-up of a poster for a Moulin Rouge show called “Follements,” and a theatre curtain featuring erotic images including depictions of both sex organs. Victorian waiter-girls in silk top hats and ribbons take your drink order. They appear to enjoy their work.

Long may they reign: In Trav. S.D.’s estimation, Company XIV’s debut on Lafayette St. immediately establishes the troupe as Manhattan’s premiere indie theatre company.

Long may they reign: In Trav. S.D.’s estimation, Company XIV’s debut on Lafayette St. immediately establishes the troupe as Manhattan’s premiere indie theatre company.

Their inaugural show in the new venue —  “Rococo Rouge” — is a smasheroo, a kind of solid restatement of the kind of work the company has always done, but also an ambitious announcement about the kind of work they intend to do going forward. Essentially it’s a complex, highly thematic variety show with song and dance being a common denominator, but articulated in so many clever, different ways, it is essentially a vaudeville. Shelly Watson is our hostess, streetsinger, Virgil, madam and opera diva, equal parts Texas Guinan, Sophie Tucker and Marian Anderson. And she guides us through a succession of acts that feels every bit like a menu of some sumptuous repast with nothing but lobster, oysters, caviar, chocolate and champagne. (And something forbidden: say, live monkey’s brains).

It opens on an elaborate court dance, the company decked out in carnal red, waving fans, and then a succession of numbers, each fairly jaw-dropping in their beauty, rigorous precision, and illusion of effortlessness. Every single artist in the collaboration is extraordinary. Many of the numbers remind one of the acrobatic roots of early ballet; and we come close to the artistry of the circus with an aerial act, a pole dance, and a show-stopping cyr wheel. The latter is done by a female dancer in male drag as a macho Italian man (later to be balanced out in the show by a male dancer in female drag who lip-syncs). One vignette is set to the “Habanera” from “Carmen.” Watson closes out the show with the old Peggy Lee classic “Is That All There Is?” (which Mistress Astrid used to use at a closer at the now defunct Va Va Voom Room). Achingly beautiful scenic effects are achieved: a never-ending snow of shimmering red glitter flutters to the ground, where it seemingly vanishes. A can-can dance demonstrates the amazing effects that can be achieved by moving colored fabric in dim light —  it made me realize how the “Serpentine” dances of Loïe Fuller must have evolved.

I only caught a couple of names. Katrina Cunningham is a gorgeous chanteuse. Rob Mastrianni is a kick-ass classical guitarist and electric sitar player. (He even got me clapping to his difficult rhythms, and I never clap with crowds in time to music!) But as I said, every single person in the cast is extraordinary, and they all feed into this almost cosmic sense of true collaboration, a group of people coming together to make something that is somehow a part of all of them.

Katrina Cunningham stands, as “a never-ending snow of shimmering red glitter flutters to the ground, where it seemingly vanishes.”

Katrina Cunningham stands, as “a never-ending snow of shimmering red glitter flutters to the ground, where it seemingly vanishes.”

And when the show was over, people were audibly bummed. In sum, I propose that you get there as quickly as possible. The night I went, the audience was a mix of tourists and bold-faced names like Nolé Marin from “America’s Next Top Model” and former Village Voice dance editor and critic Elizabeth Zimmer. Reigning royalty of New York’s burlesque scene are to be found there every night. And mysterious characters. In the audience behind us was an amazing trio of African American gents decked out in matching grey top hats, tails, scarves and KILTS. We predict that in the wake of the buzz that’s already circulating, the audience will be composed entirely of people like THOSE guys — and those tourists in their kickin’-around clothes won’t be able to get within five miles of the place.

“Rococo Rouge” plays through November 2, to be followed no doubt by something equally breath-taking.

THEATER |  ROCOCO ROUGE
Presented by Company XIV
Conceived, Directed & Choreographed by Austin McCormick
Runtime: 90 min.
21 & over admitted
Through November 2
Tues.–Sun. at 8 p.m.
Oct. 25 show at 10 p.m. only | No Oct. 28 show
At XIV
428 Lafayette St. (btw. Astor Pl. & E. Fourth St.)
Tickets from $55 to $125
Visit companyxiv.com or call 212-677-1444
Facebook.com/CompanyXIV
Twitter: @Company_XIV
Instagram: CompanyXIV