QPAC International Series
September 2–11 2016
Reviewed by Ruth Ridgway
Watch the live stream of Snow White tonight from 7pm HERE
Dance is more than controlled contortion and movement. It is the canvas against which we interpret the world and explore the depths of human emotion.
The story of Snow White is a focus for this year’s Brisbane Festival, with the full-length dance theatre work by the French contemporary dance company Ballet Preljocaj, as well as a music theatre retelling by La Boite Theatre Company and Opera Queensland, and the Gallery of Modern Art screening two film versions, one from 1916, and the better known Walt Disney one from 1937.
Artistic Director and choreographer Angelin Preljocaj created Snow White on his company Ballet Preljocaj in 2008, and it is one of their best-known works. This season is part of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s International Series, and exclusive to Brisbane.
The series has notably brought to Brisbane companies of the calibre of the Paris Opera Ballet, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, and the Bolshoi Ballet, and is a highlight of the dance performance calendar. While Ballet Preljocaj is not as internationally renowned as these companies, it is good to see a contemporary company as part of the series.
Snow White, like many fairytales, is a very dark story, about hatred, jealousy, attempted murder and revenge. Preljocaj’s version exploits this darkness to the full, staying very close to the story recorded by the Brothers Grimm.
The evil Queen, jealous of the beauty of her stepdaughter Snow White, tries several times to kill her, and apparently succeeds, but Snow White is revived by her Prince and marries him. At the wedding, the stepmother is forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she dies.
In the opening scene, a woman in black struggles through dark trees in a thick fog, disappearing into it and then reappearing. She is revealed as Snow White’s mother, who dies when giving birth. This short sequence is one of the most powerful moments in the work.
The set design and lighting, by Thierry Leproust and Patrick Riou, respectively, create a powerful effect, from the start taking us into a malevolent world dominated by brooding forest.
There are lighter, even joyous, moments: Snow White’s duos with her Prince; the vigorous dances of members of her father’s court; an interlude with nymphs and fauns in the forest; and the dwarves, with whom Snow White takes refuge before the Queen finally hunts her down.
The choreography has some very balletic elements, mixed with much earthier grounded movement. The courtiers’ dancing, for instance, repeats the basic classical arm positions, but also has the dancers stamping and thigh-slapping, reminiscent of central or eastern European folk dance. Scooping and windmilling arm movements are a theme through the work.
The dancers playing the dwarves appear from openings in a giant wall filling the whole space at the rear of the stage. The miner’s lamps on their heads reinforce the analogy of a cliff, peppered with mineshaft entrances or cave mouths. Suspended by ropes, the dwarves walk up and down the wall as if it is a floor, and fly and tumble across it, in a magical sequence.
Emilie Lalande was a fragile, girlish Snow White, light, quick and agile. Her Prince, Redi Shtylla, was the outstanding dancer on first night – strong, tall, and athletic. He projected an energy that contrasted with Snow White’s fragility. Their duos were tender, and passionate, with many flying lifts.
Léa de Natale appears only briefly as Snow White’s mother, in the opening scene, and in a beautiful and moving aerial sequence when she lifts the unconscious Snow White up to float above the stage – both very powerful.
As the Queen, Cecilia Torres Morillo glowered and smouldered at her giant mirror, and commanded the stage with an evil presence. There is little dance in her role until the end, when the Queen is tortured and dances to her death. Torres Morillo’s repetitive leaps were slightly underwhelming in the portrayal of such a violent end.
An uncredited dancer deserves a mention for her portrayal of a deer in the forest, nervous and alert, and moving jerkily as it scans its surroundings for danger. Its fear is justified – it is the creature killed by the Queen’s hunters to make her believe they have obeyed her orders and killed Snow White.
Much was made in the publicity for the show of the costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier. The wicked Queen’s red and black dominatrix outfit, with its cage-like outer bodice, and long skirt cut away in front to show her black stockings and boots, was a signature image for the season.
The Prince’s eyecatching salmon-pink costume, reminiscent of a prince from classical ballet, was inspired by that of a Spanish bullfighter.
Snow White’s striking wedding dress is a crinoline, the frame hung with white fringes that fluttered as she moved. Her costume for the bulk of the work, however, is a white playsuit-like garment looped very loosely between her legs, with wide slits at the side, and a floating panel at the back. The costume is very unflattering, with the look of a sagging nappy, and exposes the dancer’s buttocks a lot of the time.
Preljocaj chose music from works by Gustav Mahler for Snow White. The haunting quality of the music suits the dark fairytale, although the choreography (the vigorous folk-style dance, for example) contrasts with its grandeur at times.
The Queensland Symphony Orchestra, led by its Conductor Laureate Johannes Fritzsch, played beautifully, and contributed greatly to the theatrical impact of the show.
At 1 hour 50 minutes without an interval, Snow White feels like a long stretch in the theatre. Some people on the first night obviously needed a break, and walked out halfway through anyway.