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THE FAIREST OF ALL: A SOARING 'BLANCHE-NEIGE' BY ANGELIN PRELJOCAJ TRANSCENDS ITS GRIMM ORIGINS

By Patricia Boccadoro

"Mirror, Mirror, on the wall,
Who in this land is the fairest of all?"

PARIS, 24 JANUARY 2009 - Most people know the tale of the childless Queen who pricked her finger while sewing one winter, and looking out at the three drops of blood which fell upon the snow, longed for a daughter with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood and hair as black as ebony. Blanche-Neige, the English translation being Snow White, was one of the many stories that leading French choreographer, Angelin Preljocaj read to his children, and on which he finally chose to base his latest contemporary yet highly romantic work, set to a sumptuous score by Gustav Mahler. Premiered at the Biennale de Lyon in September, it was presented at the Theatre Nationale de Chaillot in October and the Theatre de St. Quentin- en- Yvelines in November.

"After Empty Moves and Eldorado I was getting tired of creating abstract pieces and really felt a need to tell a story," Preljocaj told me after a performance of his ballet in Paris. "At the time, it seemed a most unlikely choice, fraught with dangers," he continued, "but I wanted a story that hadn't been fully dealt with before. Cinderella, the Snow Queen, even Puss in Boots have all been subjects of works, not to mention all the great traditional ballets including Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. Moreover, the fact that it is such a well-known fairytale enabled me to concentrate on developing what the body has to say; portraying the feeling and emotions of the main characters by movement. All I had to do was to remain faithful to Grimm's story, adding my own interpretation of the symbols present, helped along by Bruno Bettelheim's La Psychanalyse des contes de fees which I read attentively."


Céline Galli and LOrena O'Neill in Blanche Neige
Ballet Preljocaj
Photo courtesy of Ballet Preljocaj

From the dramatic and violent birth of the young princess and the opening ballroom scene, despite unflattering costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier who dressed the corps de ballet in strange little numbers, Grecian folds up top, far Western fringes down below, the choreography was outstanding. A pas de deux between two women became a pas de quatre, leading in turn to a pas de six and so on, until there were some 26 dancers swirling on stage. Inexplicably, the prince was dressed in salmon pink, toreador style, while Snow White herself wore a weird arrangement in white, half diaper, symbolic of a baby, and half skirt, symbolic of her approaching womanhood, but neither costume managed to mar the beauty of the choreography. Preljocaj's pas de deux are amongst the most beautiful created this century, and those in this ballet were no exception.

A pas de deux between the heroine and her prince, sublimely interpreted by Nagisa Shirai and Sergio Diaz began in silence, with Diaz running diagonally across the stage, Shirai balanced horizontally on one shoulder, before the steps were repeated, this time to one of Mahler's magnificent symphonies. In the second part of the ballet, in an impassioned duet, Diaz succeeds in awakening the seemingly dead princess, dislodging the poisoned apple stuck in her throat by the intensity of his movements. He kneels in disbelief before the glass coffin before prostrating himself with grief, and slowly slides her inanimate body towards him. Snow White, as the audience knows, is not dead, but in a trance, and so begins a pas de deux of indescribable beauty, bringing to mind MacMillan's Romeo with Juliet. But this time, the girl comes back to life.


Nagisa Shirai and Sergio Diaz in Blanche Neige
Ballet Preljocaj

Photo courtesy of Ballet Preljocaj

"Angelin just told me to let my body completely relax, and to let it go where it wanted as if I was asleep," Nagisa Shirai told me. "He guided our movements, knowing exactly the effect he wanted. And as for my costume, after the initial…surprise," she added, "I forgot about it and let myself simply follow the music and choreography." Small-boned, and slender, with shining dark hair down to her waist, she was the incarnation of Snow White, more than justifying the mirror's reply to the wicked stepmother's query of who was the most beautiful in the land,

"Thou art fairer than all who are here, lady Queen
But more beautiful still is Snow White, I ween."

Costume wise, the wicked Queen Domina, majestically clad in black and red with more than a few smidgens of sadomasochism surrounding her, fared a great deal better. She dominated one of the most terrifying and theatrical moments of the work, forcing the poisoned apple into her rival's mouth while the latter's seven small protectors were out working the gold mines, and the ballet rose dramatically to a peak when the unearthly figure of the long-dead Queen flew down from the netherworld to gather her daughter up in her arms, only to return through the air to lay the princess' quiescent body gently back down to earth; it was not yet time.

The chic and tasteful décor by Thierry Leproust swept one instantly into a magical land, from the evocative beauty of the sombre forest, leading to the glittering mountain of enchantment worked by the seven dwarfs, who came down from the heights, spiraling through the air on wires in a ballet of immense beauty.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.com

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