QPAC Lyric Theatre, Brisbane
September 2, 2016
Ballet Preljocaj’s Snow White has made its Australian premiere as part of the QPAC International Series 2016. Based heavily on the original Grimm Brothers tale, it is a distinctly adult production and is not recommended for children.
Queensland Symphony Orchestra performed Gustav Mahler’s symphonies – chosen by Artistic Director and choreographer Angelin Preljocaj because they were written in the same era as the Grimm Brothers’ stories – beautifully and other sounds from 79D interspersed with the music to create depth, including bells, voices and white noise. Sets designed by Thierry Leproust provided a rich extra layer to the production, particularly the Queen’s mirror and the dwarf mines. Lighting design by Patrick Riou complemented each scene and created an enthralling atmosphere.
The ballet was performed as a single act, without an interval, over two hours in the Lyric Theatre. In spite of there being several obvious places where an interval could have been inserted without reducing the effect of the ballet, it did remain engrossing for the entire two hours.
One of the most-discussed aspects of this ballet in the lead up to its Australian premiere was the costuming by renowned haute couture designer Jean Paul Gaultier. Forgoing tutus and tights, the costuming for Snow White seems to draw inspiration from many, varied places including the military, Ancient Greece and the German Romantic era in which the story was written. Certainly ambitious and visually arresting but, at times, these things seems to come at the cost of practicality and ease of movement. The Queen’s billowing black and red skirt, for example, got caught on her high-heeled shoes more than once on opening night. Similarly, Snow White’s costume was part toga, part leotard and part diaper, hanging loosely between her legs and swinging unflatteringly to the sides as she danced.
The production continued to push boundaries by including partial nudity – Snow White’s costume notwithstanding – but to no great effect. In a ballet where youth, jealousy and femininity are explored, there are many ways in which it could have been incorporated, but perhaps not in the wild animal whose heart the hunters cut out to deceive the Queen. It didn’t take away from the ballet overall but it didn’t add anything either, other than some small shock value.
Angelin Preljocaj’s choreography was hypnotic, and closer to a contemporary performance than to a traditional story ballet, but maintaining all the tropes and trimmings. The ballerinas dance barefoot with the exception of the Queen, who wore heels, and her cat gargoyles, who wore ballet flats. The choreography included a lot of floor work and was beautifully executed by the entire cast. The corps were perfectly in time and committed themselves entirely to multiple characters throughout the ballet. A choreographic highlight of the performance was the highly physical pas de deux between the Prince and Snow White; he discovers she is dead and dances with her limp, lifeless body. Almost perfectly executed but for one mistimed jump that connected his foot to her head.
The ballet explores Snow White’s progression from a young girl (danced by seven-year-old Queensland local Lily Naylor) to a young woman. In this version, Snow White is not a submissive innocent – she is a distinctly sexual creature under her own direction, and she teases and tempts the Prince from the beginning. The eponymous role was danced by Emilie Lalande with beautiful extensions and expression, always finishing her movements with sharpness regardless of speed or complexity. Simon Ripert and Léa de Natale danced well as Snow White’s deceased mother and widowed father, though their appearances were brief. Her mother visits Snow White after her death and they ascend, hanging together above the stage, before Snow White is lowered again. Margaux Coucharrierere and Verity Jacobsen were flexible and feline as the Queen’s cat gargoyles and Redi Shtylla was dynamic as the Prince who ultimately saves the heroine with his love. The dwarves made the most memorable entrance by far as they half-danced, half-abseiled onto the stage. Their vertical dancing was another highlight – with all the grace and technique of a synchronised swimming team they created shapes, spun 360 degrees, and dove headfirst at the stage. They were also very synchronised, sharp and precise, in their on-the-ground dancing and tumbling.
The Queen’s mirror and the sequences of choreography that accompanied it were truly a thing to behold. It took quite a while to discern that the ‘reflections’ were other dancers mirroring the movements, their timing was impeccable. Mirroring was also used very effectively in a playful pas de deux with the Prince and Snow White, performed once without music and then again, extended, with accompaniment. In the mirror, the Queen examines herself from every angle, evoking the myth of Narcissus. Her costume is very dominatrix-esque, and a lot of emphasis was placed on her hips and pelvis in costuming and choreography. Cecilia Torres Morillo brought this complex character to life, most memorably in the scene of the deadly apple that has become synonymous with the tale. Stunningly savage, the Queen drags Snow White across the stage and forces the apple down her throat until she chokes to death.
If you’re planning to see the production I would recommend reading over the short Grimm Brothers tale of Snow White, as the ballet draws quite heavily from it. Accustomed to the Disney version, I had forgotten that the original fate of the wicked stepmother was to be placed in hot iron shoes to dance herself to death. Preljocaj has added and subtracted elements from the original Grimm tale, and the effect is transfixing.
Dark, modern and gripping, Ballet Preljocaj’s Snow White is a must-see production, though definitely not one for the whole family.
Ballet Preljocaj’s 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