David H Koch Theater, New York, NY; April 23, 2014

Jerry Hochman

Nagisa Shirai and Sergio Diaz in 'Snow White'. Photo © J C Carbonne

Nagisa Shirai and Sergio Diaz in ‘Snow White’.
Photo © J C Carbonne

New York balletgoers are a reasonably savvy and particularly opinionated crowd. So when the curtain came down on Angelin Preljocaj’s “Snow White” at its opening New York performance, the audience response was revealing.  From my vantage point, an unusually large number of audience members, perhaps a third, exited the theater rapidly, as if escaping uncomfortable confinement. Of those who remained, more than half politely applauded. But there was a sizable group standing and cheering, many more than one would expect even from a partisan opening night audience. “Snow White” engenders that kind of mixed response. The piece is filled with splendidly inventive stagecraft, but also suffers from the kind of artistic excess that marred Mr. Preljocaj’s “Spectral Evidence” (which he created for New York City Ballet) and that makes the piece look not just different, but strange.

In its Grimm Brothers incarnation, initially published in 1815 and ‘finally’ revised in 1854, “Snow White,” like many other folk/fairy tales of the period, relies on dark magic and supernatural occurrences to convey its message. That it was adapted into a classic animated movie that made ‘Grumpy’ and ‘Sneezy’ familiar names is unfortunate, because this Disneyfied version desensitizes viewers with a sugar-coated cleansing of a tale that in its original form is filled with violence and brutality.

The Grimm story tells of a queen who, while pregnant, pricks her finger on a sewing needle, dripping drops of blood on the white snow that had gathered on the black windowsill. She dreams that her child will be as beautiful as that image: skin white as snow, lips red as blood, and hair black as ebony. The queen gives birth to a daughter who will grow to fit that description, but dies in childbirth.

Fast forward. The King is remarried to a vain, controlling woman who owns a magic mirror that truthfully responds to questions – sort of a medieval tablet computer with search and voice capability and a mirror app.  Every day, this Queen/Stepmother (hereafter simply the Queen) asks the mirror to identify the fairest in the land, and every day the mirror searches its memory bank and surveillance cameras and tells the Queen that she is. Then one day, after Snow White has grown into a beautiful young seven year old, the mirror tells the Queen that the fairest in the land is Snow White.

Growing more furious with each passing day, the Queen ultimately vows to eliminate the competition. She hires a local hitman, a Huntsman, to take Snow White into the woods and kill her, and to bring back some of the girl’s organs to eat (maybe with some fava beans and a nice chianti). But the Huntsman, sympathetic to the young innocent girl, spares her – figuring that she’d die of forest evils anyway (he may have been somewhat smitten, but he’s no prince charming). To mollify the Queen, the Huntsman kills a young boar instead, and brings some choice boar innards to the Queen to eat. But when she next does a mirror search, the mirror still insists that Snow White is the fairest in the land.  Since the mirror doesn’t lie, the Queen knows she’s been deceived and vows to do the job herself.

Nagisa Shirai as Snow White, here with Céline Galli in 'Snow White'. Photo © J C Carbonne

Nagisa Shirai as Snow White, here with Céline Galli as the Stepmother in ‘Snow White’.
Photo © J C Carbonne

Meanwhile, back in the forest, Snow White stumbles on an abandoned cottage. Searching for food and a comfortable place to sleep, she ransacks the place, finds a mattress, and sleeps (if she were a blonde she’d have been called Goldilocks). Soon thereafter, seven Dwarfs who just happen to live there return, and demand an explanation. They and Snow White reach a deal: she can stay, but she has to clean and cook for them. The sleeping and bathroom arrangements must have been interesting, but it worked for them.

The forest is a big place, but somehow the Queen knew exactly where to find Snow White. Maybe the mirror also had a map function. The Queen twice ventures into the forest, makes her way to the dwarfs’ cottage, and attempts to kill Snow White, but each time the Dwarfs revive her. The third time, dressed as a farmer’s wife and armed with an apple drenched in poison, she convinces Snow White to eat the apple. A piece of the poisoned apple gets lodged in Snow White’s throat, and she collapses. [The poison didn’t kill her; no one knew the Heimlich maneuver back then.] The Dwarfs, who had become attached to their little housekeeper, assume she’s dead and construct a glass coffin to contain her body (easier for a wandering prince to see through than wood or stone).

Time passes. A Prince with necrophilic tendencies just happens to wander by, sees Snow White through the glass coffin, and falls in love with her.  As the coffin, with Snow White in it, is carried away by the Prince and his retinue, it hits a bump in the road, the piece of apple becomes dislodged, and Snow White awakens.  The Prince and Snow White promptly plan a wedding, to which they invite all the kings and queens in the neighborhood.

Invitation in hand, the Queen makes the usual mirror inquiry, and is told that the new queen is more beautiful than she.  Curious, she attends the wedding to check out her new rival, and becomes hysterical when she discovers that the new queen is Snow White. Her dastardly deeds revealed, the Queen is condemned to suffer an interesting form of medieval torture – she’s fitted with a pair of scorching iron shoes that prevent her from putting her feet down, and she effectively ‘dances’ to her death. It’s enough to give the reader the Willis.

Although his “Snow White” is relatively strict-constructionist, Mr. Preljocaj has made one major change to the basic story:  Instead of being a casual wanderer in the woods who comes upon the apparently dead Snow White for the first time, in this version the Prince is Snow White’s continuing love interest.  This change is benign, and generates related plot modifications which provide dance opportunities that otherwise would have been inexplicable. For example, after the piece’s initial extended scene (a palace ball where the King suggests that his now mature daughter find a mate – and Snow White hits on one of the visiting Princes), the couple escapes to a sylvan rendezvous, a ‘lovers lane’ of sorts.  After the four scantily clad couples already there depart, Snow White and the Prince get to know each other on a more intimate basis.  The pas de deux that Mr. Preljocaj has created for them is lyrical and balletic (although Snow White dances barefoot throughout the piece).

When the Prince later reconnects with Snow White, their passion is rekindled – even though she’s apparently dead.  This second pas de deux is beautifully choreographed as well (although a bit too remindful of the climactic ‘bier’ pas de deux in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet”), and it includes what for me was the ballet’s most indelible, and its only relatively subtle, original image: the glass coffin in the original story has been converted into a glass slab which, at the outset of the pas de deux, becomes an angled platform on which the body of the ‘dead’ Snow White slides into the Prince’s arms. It’s a strikingly moving image that makes its staging point quickly and decisively.

But few of the other stunningly conceived images in “Snow White” are made quickly and decisively. On the contrary, Mr. Preljocaj’s “Snow White” is filled with images which appear intended solely for shock value, or which, unlike the glass platform/slide, are milked to the point where as good as they may be, they grow tiresome.

For instance, the young boar that the Huntsman kills and fillets after releasing Snow White into the woods is envisioned as a bare-chested young woman adorned with hugely grotesque horns. This image might have been perversely memorable, but Mr. Preljocaj doesn’t let it go. Presumably after being shot by the Huntsman (I don’t recall seeing the huntsman shoot the boar, but the scene makes no sense otherwise), the young woman/boar staggers, inch by inch, halfway across the stage, and dies an agonizingly slow Shakespearean death.  Until she finally collapses and rolls over like a sick cow, her extended death scene, for no significant narrative reason, stops the ballet dead in its tracks.

One of the ballet’s finest images is Mr. Preljocaj’s vision of the Dwarfs mining their mountain. Tethered to wires, the Dwarfs literally propel themselves up, down, around, and into a ‘mountain’ that occupies the entire back wall of the stage. If they’re toiling at work, it doesn’t look it – these mountain climbers are having a grand time. But as entertaining as this moving image is, it goes on much longer than it should.  But that’s not the only problem: the scene is undermined by the music paired with it. The piece is choreographed to selections from unidentified compositions by Gustav Mahler. Mr. Preljocaj matched the image of the Dwarfs’ wall-climbing with Mahler’s funereal take on ‘Frere Jacques’ from his “Symphony No. 1.”  This music might have been compatible with a visualized chain gang, but not for a septet of happy mountain climbers. “Whistle While You Work” would have been more appropriate.  So not only does the mountain-climbing image continue longer than it should, the dreary music makes it feel even longer.

I’ve ignored much of the choreography to this point both because the ballet is more about its collection of images than about its dancing.  Except for the referenced two pas de deux and the brief but vivid concluding image of the Queen’s dance of death, most of the actual dancing is confined to the court dances at the beginning and end of the piece, which are unimpressive.  Even its most stunning encounter, when the Queen, disguised, tries to stuff the poison apple down Snow White’s throat, is in reality just a series of strung-together dramatic images.  Mr. Preljocaj’s treatment of the Mirror and the Queen’s interaction with it is well done (the Queen sees her reflection, and those of her cohorts, as they move in front of the mirror, and later her image is replaced by various images of Snow White), but it’s too derivative of John Cranko’s use of the same device in “Onegin.” Indeed, much of the ‘inventive’ imagery in “Snow White” appears to have been hijacked from other more familiar ballets (in addition to “Romeo and Juliet,” echoes of “The Sleeping Beauty” and “Swan Lake” abound).

The cast, members of Mr. Preljocaj’s Ballet Preljocaj, which is based in Aix-en-Provence, performed admirably throughout. Nagisa Shirai as the sweet Snow White and Anna Tatarova as the vicious Queen/Stepmother, the piece’s opposing polarities of good and evil, led the cast. They were ably assisted by Sergio Diaz’s ardent Prince, Sergi Amoros Aparicio’s mild-mannered King, and Caroline Jaubert’s and Margaux Coucharriere’s fabulously spidery black-clad Cats (who, together with the Queen, unfortunately bore a striking similarity to Carabosse and her minions). Also prominently featured in the ballet are the costumes, created by noted fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier, which provide unlimited opportunity for the dancers’ bodies to move without restriction, and that for their sensuality and decadence are perfectly appropriate for this piece.

I usually enjoy ballets that provide fresh, uniquely imagined insights into classic stories, and Mr. Preljocaj does have some fabulous ideas here.  But he loves them too much, and doesn’t let them go.  So even though there’s a lot to like in “Snow White,” just as there is in his “Spectral Evidence,” the ballet’s visual eccentricity diminishes the impact of the piece because the focus becomes the stagecraft rather than the story or the choreography.  As a result, “Snow White” is both wonderful and disappointing, and the collectively schizophrenic opening night audience response to it was right on the mark.