From the moment Blanche Neige begins - a pregnant, dying queen dragging herself across the floor and giving life to another in her own final moments - you know what lies ahead will challenge your preconceptions about the way Snow White's tale should be told. Yet as Angelin Preljocaj's ballet advances, dancers catapult you into a visually spectacular world, not necessarily challenging, but somewhat sexually provocative world that contrasts the light purity and innocence of Snow White with the dark desires of an evil queen. And despite the skin-clad costumes that seem more decoration than clothing, this production stays fairly true to the original Grimm fairytale.
The evil queen wears the most provocative costume: a fetish-like leather looking outfit with a v-cut that goes down to her groin area; but it's obvious a flesh-colored fabric covers the exposed areas, and most viewers will have no problem finding appreciation for the creativity of the costume and its genius in matching the character's personality. Other than that, the costumes of Blanche Neige do not emphasize the fact that they show so much skin. The one time a woman goes topless, her stunning and precise movements are the center of attention. The males of Preljocaj's dance company wear costumes that harken back to a romantic ideal, while the females wear costumes made to look sensual without being too revealing (but some of their choreography is suggestive). Snow White's costume drapes over her like an essential part of her, moving gracefully with her body.
Her prince, too, moves as if one with her. Preljocaj's choreography beautifully conveys the lovers' souls and youthful spirits. After Snow takes the fateful bite out of the poisoned apple (also stunningly choreographed), the prince finds her and dances with her limp body. The two move with what seems like no effort at all as he turns and twists their bodies in a dance of longing and desire.
So flawless and captivating were the dancers in this production that several audience members, including this reviewer, rushed to buy a DVD of the ballet after the performance. With visually stunning sets (by Thierry Leproust) and lighting and emotional dancing, every moment, every movement becomes worthy of freezing in time for current and future audiences to savor.
A giant mirror, mirror on the wall is created with a frame and a mesh drop behind which dancers reflect the queen's movements or show her the "most beautiful of all." A dark and foggy forest creates the mysterious environment in which Snow White first finds herself after escaping the evil queen's grasp. And when Snow meets her friendly dwarf friends, they have just finished a fascinating number in which they dance and repel up and down a wall made to look like mountainous terrain with caves.
By far the stand-out piece of the ballet, this wonderful aerial dance tells the story of the miners finishing up a hard day of work as Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 1 - his famous take on Frere Jacques - plays. Mahler's classic music makes up the majority of the ballet's accompaniment, matching the emotions and situations of the story perfectly. Unfortunately, that music comes pre-recorded and sometimes lacks transitions due to the way creators pieced it together. A few plot elements could use clarification as well, particularly how Snow ends up wandering alone in the woods after the audience has just watched her walk off stage with the prince. But that isn't enough to weigh down the Preljocaj's fabulous choreography, nor the strong quality of dancing on display.
A ballet that stays traditional and become thoroughly modern at the same time seems an oxymoron, but Preljocaj's Blanche Neige manages it with unequaled excellence.
This review is based on the U.S. premiere performance of Blanche Neige at the Mondavi Center in Davis, California (MondaviArts.org). See U.S. Tour schedule below.
17-18 Davis, California, Mondavi Center
23-25 Los Angeles, California, Los Angeles Music Center
30-31 Washington, Columbia, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts