Ballet Preljocaj presents a dark, creative and compelling 'Snow White' at Power Center
Angelin Preljocaj’s “Snow White” opens with a thunderous crack and the curtain rising on a midnight stage and a black-robed woman staggering forward, halting again and again to arch her back in labor pains. She gives birth to a baby girl—whisked away to be raised by her kingly father (and evil stepmother)—and expires.
It’s scary in a most un-Disney way, modernist and stark. And it’s a dark and dramatic prologue to an extraordinarily fraught and beautiful ballet in which Preljocaj refreshes and renews the conventions of 19th-century narrative dances—like “Sleeping Beauty” or “Swan Lake”—through remarkable 21st century choreography and acute theatrical vision.
Nuance abounds in the choreography, but it’s a black and white world in this “Snow White,” which Preljocaj’s excellent company, Ballet Preljocaj, presented Thursday evening at Power Center in the first of three performances under University Musical Society auspices.
There’s the struggle between good and evil, of course, but set designer Thierry Leproust, lighting designer Patrick Riou and costume designer (and fashion genius) Jean Paul Gaultier visualize it brilliantly and literally in the opening and closing scenes of the dance. There’s the blackness of the night, and even of the King’s robes. There’s the whiteness of the young Snow White’s tunic—blinding as she whirls into view from behind a tall column, suddenly a blooming flesh-and-blood child (Vicky Wang), not the newborn doll-baby her father’s cradled a moment before as he disappeared in the column’s shadow.
There’s the whiteness, a sexier, leg-baring whiteness, to the attire of the grown Snow White (Nagisa Shirai); she’s pure, but she has desires, desires she discovers as she meets her prince (Fabrizio Clemente). (And you gotta love her white ball gown at ballet’s end—with a sort of hoop-skirt with fringed tiers.)
Her evil stepmother (Gaelle Chappaz) has desires, too. Her black-leather dominatrix bondage get-up, with cape edged in hellfire red, pretty much says it all. And the courtiers who attend to king and princess, well, they’re in black and white, too, with the women wearing soft white chiffon tunics—crisscrossed with black leather straps. They’re about as innocent as their costumes indicate.
But there is order and orderliness in this king’s court. As the King and Snow White sit on bronzed thrones that elevate hydraulically—perched high in the air, the pair look a little like butterflies pinned to the monumental bronze wall—the ladies and men of the court array themselves before them—and dance. That’s what courtiers do in 19th century ballets, and they do it here, too, in neat rows, in symmetrical patterns, a la Petipa. There are even pas de deux and pas de trois.
And when the evil Chappaz flames in to interrupt the dancing with her poisonous presence, the character she most brings to mind is the evil fairy Carabosse in “Sleeping Beauty,” the one that the king and queen forgot to invite to the christening and whose curse Aurora will have to bear.
These are not coincidences, but they would be of little interest were it not for the new wine that Preljocaj has poured into these old bottles. His choreography here is both formal and highly gestural, indebted to classical dance but hardly its slave. It’s reminiscent in its response to the music—about which more in a moment—to Mark Morris’s elegant, semaphoric constructions, but without the remove and archness that Morris often brings to the game.
And his partnering techniques are stunning. Men and women nudge each other into lifts with a hip or the butt of a head, the flow unbroken.
Preljocaj is at his most exceptional in the two main duets for the prince and Snow White, and so are Clemente and Shirai.
In the first, when they meet at court, they mirror each other’s movements—they complete each other, and beautifully so. How different they are from the Queen, regarding herself, or her double, in her giant, full-length mirror.
In the second duet, the Prince dances with Snow White, an ostensibly dead Snow White, whom he raises from her bier. She is limp, but he partners her as if she was living—which she, of course, comes to be. It’s a difficult duet technically and also emotionally. Clemente and Shirai made it entirely telling, entirely natural.
The storytelling in the ballet is somewhat elliptical—you have to know the tale to see all of the tale, I think. (For those who wondered about the ending, in the Grimm version, the Evil Queen is forced to don heated iron shoes and dance herself to death—how perfect for a ballet!). There’s no mime, as you might find in a 19th century ballet, but it’s not missed and the compressed narrative is well-constructed.
Of constructions in the ballet, none, perhaps, can touch Preljocaj’s dwarves. For those who have yet to see the ballet, it would be unfair to spoil the surprise, but think cliffs, think rappelling, and head-over-heels motion, and prepare to enjoy yourself.
Finally, a word about the music. Preljocaj, I think, took a real risk using divine music from Mahler’s symphonies. This is music so revered that to excerpt it for a ballet, to play it from speakers, might seem sacrilege to some. But he has succeeded admirably in pairing it with the dancing. He never counts on it to make his emotional points; he never steps on its toes. But at the same time, it offers remarkable reinforcement of choreography whose truths run deep.
"Snow White" continues tonight and Saturday. For tickets, see ums.org.