BALLET PRELJOCAJ LAYS on the MAHLER

Dancers perform in the Schneewittchen (Snow White) ballet dress rehearsal at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin

Pas de deux from Snow White

Angelin Preljocaj, the Artistic Director of Ballet Preljocaj, in his version of Snow White, has imagined a fantastical, unlikely universe where contemporary dance, expansive romantic music (Mahler) and sex-charged, alt fashion costuming (Jean Paul Gaultier) intersect.  Much of the ballet also has a cinematic appeal, though it was originally made for the stage. The ballet does exist in a version for film ( Blanche Neige in its French appellation) that coincided with the production’s first stage performances in 2008. At times, the production seems a full measure beyond excess with its broad reliance on special effects, such as rappelling miners (replacing Grimm’s rescuing dwarfs) who synchronously navigate a massive, vertical stone wall; there is also risky aerial partnering and a voguing, uber Queen Stepmother, dressed by Gaultier as a dominatrix, whose killing narcissism knows no bounds. The famous mirror makes brief appearances but as an immense, back lit scrim with a double precisely mimicking the queen’s movements.

Notwithstanding the wildly imaginative theatrically of the production, it is still the economical, methodical storytelling that unfolds against the  beautifully designed score of excerpts and stand-alone movements from nine of Mahler’s ten symphonies that keeps the ballet grounded. Preljocaj has chosen to focus his version on the character of the Stepmother Queen.  But he has clearly given the most profound dancing to his two heroic protagonists, Snow White (Nagisa Shirai) and her Prince (Fabrizio Clemete). They anchored the performance on Friday evening with three deeply expressive pas de deux. The last of the three is set to the Adagietto for harp and strings from the 5th Symphony. When the Prince discovers Snow White’s lifeless body he dances with her. It was virtuoso performance that was stunning both as a feat of endurance, choreographic invention and for the powerful emotional desperation it conveyed. You could draw comparisons to the tomb scene in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet but the grandeur and scale of this pas de deux sets it apart with memorable distinction. Nagisa Shirai was exceptional in this role (she is also in the version for film) and has a terrifically appealing presence on stage. She was always a believable heroine and I liked the honesty of her acting.

preljocaj 2Though visually powerful the role of the Queen ( Gaëlle Chappaz) felt hemmed in by a reliance on a gestural preening. She seems entombed in her gowns and strappy gear. The dancing for her character never really challenges the dynamics of Snow White, her Prince, and their world of ecstatic movement, save in the poison apple scene, where Chappaz turns up the heat and delivers a violent encounter more like a rape than a poisoning. The Queen stuffs the tainted apple in Snow White’s mouth, and using it to drag her around the stage, punishes her with body blows and finally flings her in a heap. The scene is set against the ländler Andante from the 8th Smyphony, which opens peacefully, then turns dark as the Queen assaults Snow White.

Ballet choreographers (Bejart, Tudor, MacMillan, and Feld among others) have usually gravitated toward Mahler for his symphonic song cycles such as Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Das Lied von der Erde, and Kindertotenlieder. In his Snow White, Preljocaj sticks with the text-free instrumental music. For those who are familiar with the symphonies, it can seem like a choppy ride with its reassembled score of movements and incomplete excerpts. You also may wonder how you might ever hear this with real music. A Mahler sized orchestra shoehorned into a pit would be a real challenge in any theater. Unfortunately for this performance, the distorted and oppressively loud recorded music didn’t help soften the blow. But often, the musical choices were excellent. Mahler’s music, whose qualities can be airy and youthful but also inhabit painfully dark or grotesque recesses, played well against Preljocaj’s characters and story line. Particularly fine in this regard was the wonderful musicality of the court dance scenes (Le Bal, Symphony #2 Ländler), especially the ensemble section for the women. Also powerful were the poisoned apple scene set to an instrumental excerpt from Part II of the Symphony of a Thousand  (Symphony #8). and the Les Amoureux and Scarf Dance sections, in which the wandering Snow White encounters a group of lascivious, underdressed woodland dwellers. The scene is set against music from the Scherzo from the 5th Symphony. Alternating with the Mahler are sections of electronically generated music and ambient sound that introduce some scenes and cover transitions. Those sound scores were composed by the group, 79 D. None of the recorded orchestral performances unfortunately was identified in the program information.

Preljocaj is after a contemporary version of traditional story ballet sensibilities with his Snow White. The women all dance barefoot, save the Queen. There is not much that looks remotely classical. The movement, which rarely uses turns, often feels improvisatory and depends on loose, swinging, hinging gestures in the upper body and arms, with legs that are often crouching. There is an easy sense of naturalness to the movement that allows even these fairy tale characters to dance like real people.

Prelojacaj has commented on the romantic excesses of his collaged Mahler score, but a good deal of the look and feel of the production’s over-the-top theatricality is delivered via Thierry Leproust’s impressive designs and sets. The ballet opens with Snow White’s mother writhing in childbirth on a darkened and smoke filled stage. She is flanked by two towering black monoliths. Crashing, electronic, ambient sounds are the first things we hear. This moment is clearly not the sunny birth of Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora, and the potent symbols at hand let us know that this is not standard issue fairytale either. Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. The atmospheric lighting, mostly muted, dark and at times haunting, was by Patrick Riou. The ballet ran an hour and forty minutes with no intermission and played to an enthusiastic, capacity house.

See this Snow White if it comes to a theater near you. Or find the film version on DVD. And for those of you collecting danced versions of the Mahler Adagietto, this one may just be the new gold standard.

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