This story was first published on Limelight August 28, 2016.
Here in Australia, ballet fans have an almost limitless supply of new fairytale fare on offer. In the Northern Hemisphere, where tastes are little more avant-garde, saccharine story ballets are more scarce, particularly in the repertoire of contemporary choreographers. So when French ballet icon Angelin Preljocaj announced in 2007 that he would be creating a new full-length show based on Snow White, it raised some eyebrows.
It seemed to be an inexplicable break from his typical, viscerally challenging concepts; even when tackling conventional narratives – his 1990 setting of Romeo and Juliet reimagined in a Cold War gulag, for example – the bones of the plot are always stretched over with thematic muscle that flexes towards a darker psyche. “I have a very wide range of work, but sometimes I think it’s important to un-join myself and un-join my company from the predictable, to do something more disorientating,” Preljocaj relates in his deliciously thick French accent.
“Snow White isn’t like other fairy stories – it’s not like Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty. Snow White is a thriller. It’s dark and vicious and complex; there’s a lot in this story to play with. But in many ways, it’s very similar to much of my work. It’s a production that combines things from the past and the future – this is my favourite topic.”
Any of Preljocaj’s devotees concerned about his choice of subject matter needn’t have worried. It’s a well-known incongruity that the original Brothers Grimm version of this story (and many other children’s favourites) is ripe with brutality, and Preljocaj has used this savage morality as his jumping off point. Using Mahler as his score, there’s a current of arch Germanic romanticism that makes a clear connection to this narrative’s folkloric heritage, but there’s also a distinctly contemporary angle in this setting. Preljocaj’s Snow White is a far cry from the squeaky-clean, dwarf-encumbered 1937 Disney incarnation. It swaps the wholesome, rosy-cheeked innocence of the animated film for a red-blooded, erotically charged approach.
This is most explicitly drawn in the costumes, designed the eccentric French fashion visionary, Jean Paul Gaultier, who had serendipitously unveiled a catwalk homage to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, during Snow White’s early development in 2008. “As soon as I began thinking about making this show I knew he was the right guy to do the costumes,” Preljocaj exclaims. “When I first approached him, he assumed I wanted to collaborate with him on one of my abstract projects, but once I told him it was for this fairytale, he was so happy. We had a very involved initial discussion where I told him my viewpoint on Snow White, and after just one week he sent me 200 sketches, he was so inspired by the ideas.”
One of Gaultier’s most striking designs, for Snow White’s cruel and vindictive stepmother, is ironically closer to the Disney version of this character than the Grimm. With a vague echo of her animated counterpart, Preljocaj’s wicked stepmother is remade as a dominatrix, flanked by feline familiars in catsuits and bondage masks. If the wicked stepmother’s sexual depravity expresses her dark intentions, then Snow White is an opposing expression of purity, but this doesn’t make her any less sexually alert. Both characters communicate something about gratification but sit on polarised ends of the spectrum between pleasure and pain.
Preljocaj approached this unfamiliar accent on the German fable in a typically oblique manner. “Sometimes it is necessary to step away from the structure of the story and ask abstract questions,” he observes. “For example, when the Prince finds Snow White, and he wants to bring her back to life, this is clearly an important moment in the storytelling, but the question of how you translate this through active bodies is a very different thing. You must take the choreography out of context, removing the music, the costumes and even the story so you are left with an object of choreographic abstraction. This is always the way I work: I am never just satisfied with a direct presentation.”
Since it’s premiere eight years ago, this adult-rated Snow White has enjoyed global success. The reason for its enduring popularity is not because it is groundbreaking, according to the choreographer, but because at its core it shares the same DNA as treasured staples of narrative ballet repertoire. “It is a familiar story, but told through new material. You can say it is innovative or radical, or that it comes from this period of that, but ultimately it’s timeless.”
Snow White plays at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, June 6 – 10.
The production also plays at the State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne, August 1 – 5
Read our review of the 2016 Brisbane season here.