First Nations Emerging Critic Carissa Lee sees Ballet Preljocaj’s gloriously gothic retelling of Snow White
Ballet Preljocaj’s production of Snow White is a retelling of the original Brother’s Grimm’s version of the fairytale, so naturally it’s gloriously gothic. I saw children in the audience and was a little worried about how graphic this production was going to be (there is certainly some imagery that will need to be explained to them later!) Featuring costume designs from Jean Paul Gaultier, which range from from ethereal to metal, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen before.
It begins with a solo dance, Mother (played by Agnes Girard): a crumbling image of a pregnant woman that emerges from a smoky haze, raging against a battle in her body. A black crown and veil, accompanied by a tattered, netted black dress, renders her faceless. Her legs, an occasional flash of luminous white, is the only flesh we see.
We think her struggle is in giving birth, but when she finally holds her baby and falls still, we realise that she was grappling with death. Solemn courtiers adorned in black carry her motionless figure away while the King (Sergi Amoros Aparicio) takes the baby away. He disappears behind a pillar for a moment and emerges with a young girl (Charlize Duck) and then disappears again to re-emerge with his grown daughter Snow White (Mirea Delogu) for a joyous father-daughter duet.
This is followed by a court scene, the ensemble coming together with boisterous, uninhibited abandon as the King and Snow White watch side by side. The synchronicity is loose, creating a happy spectacle (and the harnesses the women wore in this scene were to die for). A Prince (Redi Shtylla) comes forward to present Snow White with a red scarf, which she treasures. In contrast to the rest of the dancers, Snow White’s movements are smooth, gentle and light: a beautiful signature throughout the show.
The Queen’s entrances (Anna Tatorova), preceded by her Cat Gargoyles (Margaux Coucharriere and Manuela Spera), are heralded with thunder and lightning. They are the best things ever: by golly, she is fabulous. She strides on stage (in heels in which I could never walk, let alone dance), entices the king, terrorises the court, and exits. Next is the mirror scene, with her lithe cats, where the Queen is assured that she’s the fairest in the land.
Meanwhile the Prince and Snow White are getting together. I love the dynamic between Snow White and the Prince: although she treasures the red scarf he gave her, she’s not just handing herself over. She playfully kicks at him when he gets too close, maintaining a sassiness that keeps him at a distance until she’s ready to permit sensual closeness.
Back at the mirror, the queen sees that Snow White is now the fairest, and she’s not happy about it. There is a short duet between the Queen and the reflection of Snow White which I really wanted to be longer: using the same choreography, the Queen’s womanly, authoritative gestures contrast with Snow White’s delicate movements, demonstrating the Queen’s jealousy of Snow White’s youthfulness. The Queen sends her hunstmen to kill Snow White and bring back her heart.
Preljocaj’s take on the Queen’s motivation is a bit dodgy here: “The mother wants to kill her daughter because she takes all her power of seduction. We are living in the age of the Snow White complex.” This is hardly revolutionary: men have always put women in competition with each other. What would be interesting would be if Preljocaj explored why, but he doesn’t. To say that this trope is a truism about the nature of women is a bit audacious.
The rest of the fairytale unfolds as we know it. The three huntsmen, of course, find Snow White, but show her mercy, instead killing a wild pig in the form of a bare-breasted woman with a heart strapped to her chest. This dancer moves in staccato jerks, stepping in strict time to the beat, as the men shoot her down and cut the heart from her chest. When the Queen finds Snow White, in disguise as an old, beggarly woman, she rams the poisoned apple into her mouth and drags her along the stage in a brutal show of dominance that ends with her straddled on top of Snow White until she is moves no longer.
When the Prince finds Snow White, he dances with her limp body. It’s not in any way a pretty thing to watch: she is dead weight, slumping to the ground when she’s not supported. He kisses her and gives up, curling up in a ball of grief. Snow White slowly stirs, revived by his kiss, and they dance in relief and happiness, and all is well again.
In the final scene, after the lovers’ wedding, the Queen is sentenced to dance in red-hot shoes until she dies, as in the original Brothers Grimm tale. I feel like so much more could have been done with this ending. The rest of the production didn’t pull any punches with the more brutal scenes, particularly with the dominatrix-style death of Snow White, but here the Queen’s demise felt all too abrupt. I think she deserved an epic death.
The entire cast was strong, and a joy to watch. My favourites were the Cat Gargoyles and their Queen. Watching the Queen’s familiars have their moments as sprites of evil, but then fall into their cat-like ways when left to their own devices made them a surprisingly endearing presence. The Queen was fierce, and your gaze was drawn to her every time she entered a scene.
Thierry Leproust’s set is epic and impressive, transforming from a black space with moving pillars, to large backdrops like the Dwarves’ cave system, from which they abseiled, with the mirror coming down with the curtain in transitions. Jean Paul Gaultier’s costumes were – as I expected – amazing. My favourite was the Mother’s at the beginning of the play, and the Queen’s caped-cage harness was spectacular. The Cat Gargoyles, looked playful and adorable from a distance, but once you got a closer look you saw their masks were mouthless, which made them so much more sinister. Snow White’s thigh-baring white dress suggested innocence, with the possibility of a sexual awakening just waiting to happen.
Some other costumes felt incongruous. The Queen’s huntsmen were in generic army uniforms, which was jarring as the others belonged in their own imagined world. And why, for the love of Bunjil, was the Prince in orange?! At first it was only a hint of orange suspenders, but he progressed to orange overalls like a fireman stripper, and at the wedding wore in a full orange suit.
Gustav Mahler’s score was marvelous: I loved the repetitive abstract sounds, accompanied by jolting movement and moody lighting. The orchestral pieces were beautiful, but the eccentric sounds dripping in strangeness captivated me most. Preljocaj’s choreography was a major part of building this world for the audience. The royal court was flirtatious and fun, the dwarves maintained a rough innocence, while the Queen and her Cat Gargoyles had a slithering edge that felt like invasions in the space. It created a world that was unique and raw, and therefore intensely human.
Considering choreographer Angelin Preljocaj’s reputation as a provocateur – “Sex and violence have always been wellsprings of art…” he says – this seems relatively tame in comparison to what I’ve read about his previous works, such as his 1990 mash-up of Romeo and Juliet and 1984. Alas, I was only three years old when that premiered. But this morbid Brothers Grimm version of Snow White is a feast for the eyes, and calls up the child in those of us who just love a dark fairytale.
Snow White, choreography by Angelin Preljocaj, music by Gustav Mahler, 7D, Performed by Orchestra Victoria, Conducted by Johannes Fritzsch, Costumes by Jean Paul Gaultier, set design by Thierry Leproust. Ballet Preljocaj, at Arts Centre Melbourne until the August 5. Bookings
Age Recommendation: 12 years + Please Note: This performance contains one scene with partial nudity.
- Wheelchair access
- Companion Card
- Assistive hearing
- Audio description