Ballet Preljocaj, Davis, CA & LA

Written by:
Karen Weinstein
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Two Views of ‘Blanche Neige’ (with two Snow Whites)

Ballet Preljocaj
Choreography by Angelin Preljocaj
Music by Gustav Mahler
Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts
UC Davis, Davis, CA
Music Center, Los Angeles (both part of U.S. tour)
March 17 and 18 and 23-25, 2012

From Los Angeles:

I am not sure that what the world needs now is another version of “Snow White.” Whatever, no one asked me, so this is the year of “Snow White” redux and re-tucked. Angelin Preljocaj, France’s leading contemporary choreographer, apparently thinks that a newer, edgier, modern take is just right for the times.

How to take a story of an apple stuck in the throat of a virginal princess and a besotted prince into the 21st century? Dressing it up in costumes by one of France’s edgiest designers seemed like a place to start. Jean-Paul Gaultier has never been afraid to tweak the imagination of fashionistas with a touch or more of S & M. A vain, wicked stepmother is the perfect foil for his mastery. So what if the hyper-sleek, bustle-enhanced, slinky black costume makes her look like she is wearing a Kotex? It is modern. Why not wrap the princess in yards of white jersey clumped so that it resembles a diaper with a white bird on one shoulder? That is pretty innocent, no? Well, yes. Innocent it is, all right, but it transforms lithe Nagisa Shirai into a chunky child, an image that is at odds with her limp-seeming weightlessness in the pas de deux she performs when she is rescued by her prince.

Symphonies by Gustav Mahler are certainly more highbrow than the Disney soundtrack. Are they more danceable? As a matter of fact, rarely. For much of the full-length ballet, the dancers are racing to keep up with the choreography, which seems faster than the music calls for. Strenuously waved arms substitute for intrinsically interesting or even taxing dance. Motion takes the place of virtuosity. The exception is the dance of the dwarfs, which may make the whole experience worthwhile. The seven dwarfs are miners. They emerge from seven holes in a cliff the height of the stage. Cleverly harnessed and suspended they rappel, they scramble, and they dance with the cliff to a well-chosen segment of Mahler’s First Symphony. It is not a trapeze act borrowed from the circus, but ballet from ropes and brilliantly executed. The two black cats that accompany the wicked stepmother are also beautifully clothed and choreographed, avoiding the cloying clichéd image such characters generally impart.

Preljocaj is noted for his avant-garde presentations. He deliberately chose to bring that sensibility to this classic tale. I believe that neither the classic nor the contemporary is enhanced.

From UC Davis:

The Mondavi Center gave Ballet Preljocaj an extravagant welcome on March 17, scheduling the production of “Blanche Neige” to coincide with the 10th Anniversary of the Center for the Performing Arts. Angelin Preljocaj, artistic director of Ballet Preljocaj, created his company in 1984. By now it has become the National Choreographic Centre of the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur Region in Aix-en-Provence.

The story of Snow White is most known to U.S. audiences from the Walt Disney animated film of 1937. There have been other stage and film productions over the last century. For this version, Preljocaj follows the original, as written by the Brothers Grimm, emphasizing Bettelheim’s (and his) idea of the story as “Oedipus in reverse.” He sees the wicked stepmother as the central character, “determined not to give up on seduction and her role as woman even if it means sacrificing her stepdaughter.” Alas, except for the several episodes in front of a mirror, Patrizia Telleschi, dressed as a cabaret queen, discharging her cat/gargoyles to do evil, and a short dramatic outburst in the ballroom scene, we saw little of this wicked stepmother. The “poison apple” scene was virtually in the dark, on a badly lit stage. Her death dance was a series of ugly spins, but to this reviewer, she was never the central character.

Rather, the center of the ballet was Virginie Caussin dancing Snow White through multiple settings, emerging from birth through death, encountering sexuality among her peers, poisoned and then revived by an angel mother and a Prince’s love, thus maturing as a woman. Meeting her in the ballroom, in the woods and on her stone/glass bier, the Prince, danced by Sergio Diaz, made appropriate appearances to provide the ballet with required pas de deux. Somewhat like the final scene of “Romeo and Juliet,” the Prince dances with Snow White’s apparent dead body. Although the series of lifts, embraces and spins communicates remorse and grief, the sight of an unresponsive body is not pleasant. When the “pas de deux” is repeated upon Snow White’s awakening, their dance is divine.

The seven dwarfs actually were the most appealing character dancers. They were given a kind of Robert Lepage set, consisting of a wall and caves along which they turned and bounced. To see these seven accomplished dancers in free-fall, upside down and swinging free, was a delightful contrast to heavier parts of the ballet. Preljocaj’s ballroom scene was lusty and pounding, responding to current fashions in contemporary ballet, flexed feet, wild jumps and falls. In general, the choreography for the corps went on too long and was not rhythmically interesting.

Although the selections from various Mahler scores were intriguing for their musicality and evocative sound, those selections seemed to hamper the progress of the story line rather than support it. Many times there were unnecessary repetitions. Visually, there are some delightful sets (designed by Thierry Leproust), such as the golden ballroom and a dreamlike woods, but the complexity of the settings did not always read well. The costumes, designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier, were also strange: Snow White’s dress was tucked up into her pelvis; the Prince wore orange tights (not a great stage color) and the corps’ costumes echoed but did not resonate a vague mythological time. But it is Patrick Riou, the lighting designer who needs scolding. What is on stage should be clearly scene.

Ballet Preljocaj is a company of finely trained dancers who radiate delight in performing. Preljocaj is a very talented artist whose work has brought excitement and innovative direction to the dance world. For this viewer, alas, “Blanche Neige” did not realize his gifts.

Joanna G. Harris

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