Ballet Preljocaj ranks among the finest of European contemporary ballet companies, and the work of company director and choreographer Angelin Preljocaj influences dance artists around the world. Brought to Carolina Memorial Hall for two nights by Carolina Performing Arts, the troupe's 25 dancers performed Preljocaj's incisive, emotional 110-minute story ballet based on the Grimm Brothers' tale, Snow White.
The dance is set to an emotional mash-up of Mahler (assorted bits) and unnamed music by 79 D, in a series of tremendous sets by Thierry Leproust, with smoky lighting by Patrick Riou. Be assured, no Disneyesque sentiment alloys the dark psychology and unmasked sexuality of this serious fairy tale. While Snow White remains the innocent young girl coming of age, her stepmother the Queen is shown in a complex way that makes her more sympathetic than when she is merely the harshly-limned Evil Stepmother. Here she is plenty bad, but she's a desperate woman, fighting with rage, cunning and magic Time's thievery of her beauty and sexual power. Behind her rigidly constructed coiffure and Dominant costumery, she is the nightmare lurking in everywoman's mirror: The Hag, beloved neither by herself or others. Gaëlle Chappaz danced the role as if to banish forever all the fresh-fleshed girls of all the tomorrows, kicking and swirling in her tall boots and peek-a-boo strappings, her bustle bouncing and her whip flashing — but even a Queen cannot stop time. Her struggles only ensure her misery.
The story of Snow White is so widely known that it needs no reprise here. Preljocaj has hewed closely to the Grimm version, with a few tweaks and additions for stage power. The opening is brilliant. Instead of Snow White's expectant mother sitting with her ebony embroidery frame and pricking blood to her fingertip as she looks out at the snow, we see her enormously pregnant. She struggles like a huge spider onto the dimly lit stage, tangled in a gauzy black web, tottering in the spike heels of vanity. After much travail, she births Snow White, and dies. The King finds the baby and, in an expedient and effective bit of staging, twirls her through time until she is a lovely maiden being presented to the court, where the courtiers perform a ballet at once ritualizing romantic courtship and abandoning all constraints on sexual pleasure. There is much slinking and swiveling, thrusting and reaching — but there is nothing nasty about it.
The sexual component is emphasized throughout by Jean Paul Gaultier's costumes, in which pretty much everything points to the crotch. The women's gowns are particularly wonderful, combining elements of the Greek chiton with those of the loincloth, and holding them together with decorative bondage of the torso. Snow White's dress is a model of minimalism (as befits her innocence, its bindings do not flaunt the erogenous zones beneath), open up the sides so that the unutterably beautiful shape of leg and hip to waist and ribcage is always revealed. Dancer Nagisa Shirai, with her magnificent thighs and purity of line, suited the dress perfectly. She is powerfully built, yet has a dancer's greatest asset — the ability to get up in the air and appear weightless.
We see this most often in the deeply emotive and remarkably fresh pas de deux of young love and new desire between Snow White and the Prince, Fabrizio Clemente. I can't think of any pas de deux I've seen that was more surprising in its choreography or more moving in its effect. Preljocaj has given the Prince a series of moves, repeated several times, that in their evocation of yearning, determination, tenderness and plain old lust, provide all the explanation needed about why an older woman might try to kill a younger and eat her roasted heart with salt. One cannot hate the Stepmother for her fury, because we understand that this sweetness of being desired, which we all long for, will no longer be hers.
So the Stepmother beckons the Woodsmen — here looking like mercenaries for hire, complete with green berets — to kill Snow White and bring back her heart. They cannot do it, and take the heart of a doe instead, while the girl runs through the dark forest to fetch up at the home of the dwarves.
Every element of each scene with the seven dwarves is perfect. They emerge from a sheer cliff with a very snazzy aerial dance that somehow reminds one of the spiderish initial stage image and of the power games implicit in the bondage-clothing (although as aerialists they really do need to be wearing those straps and rigging). The development of the relationship between the girl and the dwarves is amazing. But the Stepmother's magic mirror shows it all, and despite the dwarves' care, after a few more of her tricks, Snow White lies still, apparently dead.
When her beloved form is discovered by the Prince, he dances his grief, fueled with a fiery elixir of honeyed memories. The brilliance of this bit of choreography can't be overstated. Preljocaj uses immediately recognizable sequences from the first pas de deux of springing life, breaking them, re-ordering them, reversing and perverting them into a stuttering howl into the desert of death. In his disbelief — his refusal to believe — the Prince lifts Snow White's slack body and twirls and flips her through a terrible parody of their joyous encounter, before laying her back and retreating into stillness. (This is incredible dancing on both parts, as they must make her look like she's limp and motionless, even while she's participating in the lifts and weight shifts.) But he's dislodged the Stepmother's poisoned apple from Snow White's throat; she moves. She rises. She comes from behind and touches him. They launch into a new joy, innocence tempered and magnified by their new knowledge of loss. It will be a long time, maybe never, before Snow White sees the Hag in the mirror. For now, she can put on a bridal gown like a stack of fringed lampshades, and they can dance happy, uncorroded by fear.
Snow White repeats Thurs. April 5 only. See the sidebar for more information.