Ballet mesmerizes with refreshing spin on classic

In developing a modern interpretation of Snow White with the cutting edge Ballet Preljocaj, artistic director and choreographer Angelin Preljocaj realized that the Snow White fable was one that had a generous amount of modern themes.

The conflict between the Queen and Snow White, for example, is representative of modern feminism; the events and conflicts of the play occur through the actions of a mother and a daughter, rather than through a traditional, ideal form of masculinity.

It’s this contemporary context that acts as the foundation of the libretto, creating what Preljocaj hoped would be a ballet that is modern yet magical, and something that is expressive rather than abstract. He wanted to bring back storytelling to modern ballet.

Updated fable · Nagisa Shirai (left) and Céline Galli (right) took center stage in a previous production of Snow White. Shirai, who also stars in the L.A. show, continues to impress in her execution of the stunning choreography. - Photo courtesy of JC Carbonne

Ballet Preljocaj’s Snow White premiered on Friday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, introducing American audiences to an expressionistic version of Snow White. The tale has certainly proven to be a viable fable for adaptation recently —  two cinematic versions of Snow White coming out in the near future shows the story’s unique versatility.

In Ballet Preljocaj’s version, there is more emphasis on the Queen’s desire to kill Snow White; Preljocaj believes the wicked stepmother is the central character of the tale, and her narcissistic determination to destroy her daughter is a psychoanalytical comment on modern feminism. With that in mind, the Queen, played with a fierce bravado by Gaëlle Chappaz, is shown as a villainous force of nature, strutting around in a dominatrix-inspired dress with two cat-minions following her every step.

That dress is of note: The costumes were designed by fashion legend Jean Paul Gaultier, who was the original “enfant terrible” of the fashion world and is also known for his costume designs for the 1997 French thriller The Fifth Element.

Gaultier worked closely with Preljocaj to keep the costumes in line with the storytelling quality of the play, and succeeds here: His work is so complementary to the dancers that the designs resemble an artist’s brushstrokes, giving the dancers a lightness that seems to let them float across the stage.

The choreography is sharp and pristine, giving it the fluid, humanist aesthetic of contemporary ballet but with the expressionism and emotion to accentuate the storytelling.

There’s a lovely and interesting sensuality in the characters, yet everything retains the grace of a Romantic-era painting. The music of Gustav Mahler also brings a romantic and hallowing quality to the performance, although it acts more as a complement than a driving force behind the melodic movements of the dancers.

The minimalist set design by Thierry Leproust is a sight to behold. Through the lighting, certain scenes feel like a painting coming to life; the scenes range from the futurist-abstract ballroom to the dark, yet beautiful forest.

One of the highlights is the dwarves’ mine: The seven dwarves dance in midair and sideways along the cavernous wall, creating a colorful spectacle that could only exist in modern ballet.

The character of Snow White, performed with cultivated perfection by Nagisa Shirai, is more seductive than in the common tale. Each of her transgressions are as much about her blossoming womanhood as they are about her feathery demeanor. Snow White’s costume is also revealing and angelic, and she is portrayed not simply as an object of obsession and desire but as an empowered pursuer of her own affections.

Two scenes in particular are so beautiful they are nearly transcendental. The climactic scene where the Queen, disguised as an old witch, gives the apple to Snow White, is treated as a battle for dominance, becoming more and more ferocious and primal. When the princess finally succumbs, the Queen stands over her, a true “Oedipus in reverse” that Preljocaj believes is instrumental to the fable’s modern feminist sensibilities.

And in the subsequent scene, the Prince (Fabrizo Clemente) tries desperately to bring Snow White back from the dead, dancing with her lifeless form.

Shirai’s body during this sequence moves with such fluidity and perfection that she seems more like an animated character than a human being. It is this level of physical perfection that demonstrates the true capabilities of modern ballet.

Ballet Preljocaj’s Snow White fable is graceful, powerful, sensual and heavenly.

With a renewed fascination in fairy tales and fables, Snow White stands as a unique, serene interpretation and a modern, avant-garde ballet — but one that never forgets to highlight the classic story that it’s built upon.

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