Agnès Girard in Ballet Preljocaj’s Snow White at Sydney Opera House. Image: Prudence Upton.
Ballet Preljocaj’s take on the iconic 1812 Brothers Grimm fairy tale Snow White opens with a vision of birth – then death. As the curtain is raised, the heavily robed Queen (Agnes Girard) writhes on a darkened stage in a plume of smoke, her death in childbirth setting the sinister tone for this ballet.
This is certainly not Disney! The French production premiered in Sydney last night for a short run, a decade after it was first performed in France. Despite touring internationally for many years, which on would expect might signal a well-oiled production, Snow White – despite its brilliant high points – was inconsistent in its delivery.
Most of us grew up with the story of Snow White – featuring a stepmother who, driven by her narcissism, poisons her beautiful stepdaughter, only to have love conquer in the end. But this is not your normal take on the tale. The brilliance of French-Albanian choreographer Angelin Preljocaj is his inventive blur between a classical and post-modern take on dance.
He made a name for himself in the 1990s challenging ballet's status quo, and by bringing on haute couture icon Jean Paul Gaultier for Snow White, showed he hadn’t tired from pushing new territory.
The production is a perfect fit with the Sydney Opera House’s Contemporary Performance Program, which champions modern storytellers, pop culture visionaries and work that is bold and genre-straddling.
With this interpretation, Preljocaj offers a superb segue from that opening birth scene, as the young Snow White dances through childhood to adolescence to a young woman.
Performed by Sydney-born Verity Jacobsen on opening night, her expression and delivery of the role of Snow White stole the stage – even from the much-hyped Gaultier.
It was Jacobsen’s Opera House debut, having joined the French company in 2013. Her pas de deux with the Prince, danced by Jean-Charles Jousni, was flawless as her limp, lifeless body was thrown around like a rag doll.
Verity Jacobsen and Jean-Charles Jousni in Ballet Preljocaj’s Snow White at Sydney Opera House. Image: Prudence Upton.
Other highlights included a scene where the dead queen was lowered on wires to sweep up the dead Snow White in her arms, a levitating lament that was incredibly soulful. The animated choreography of the evil Queen’s feline friends, performed by Margaux Coucharriere and Manuela Spera, was beautifully fluid and animated; and a forest deer whose staccato gait, slowed to a near pixilation, was stunningly caught in the stage lights.
Cecilia Torres Morillo brought the complex character of the evil Queen to life, but really only shone in two scenes – when she viciously dragged Snow White across the stage, forcing an apple down her throat until she chokes to death (so much better than just a poisoned bite!) and her finale, overwhelmed by madness.
For most of the production Morillo's sequences felt stultified. The mirror scenes – while a great trick with their reflections – were reduced to kind of Madonna “Voguing moments”, more gesture than dance.
It’s not surprising given she was confined by her latex bustier, thigh-high boots with a 5-inch heel, and a dangerous billowing blood-soaked hemline. While they might have added that Gaultier signature and drama – ever the dominatrix – they were not entirely conducive to dance.
Cecilia Torres Morillo in Ballet Preljocaj’s Snow White at Sydney Opera House. Image: Prudence Upton.
Furthermore, Snow White’s virginal white costume was caught somewhere between a Greco-Roman tunic and a saggy nappy, at times showing a little more than necessary. And her fringed hoop skirt in the finale made it near impossible to dance with her beloved Prince.
Overall, the much-hyped costumes by Gaultier were a disappointment, too flounced, too strapped and too incoherent.
Similarly, not all the choreography hit the mark, despite the company’s high reputation. The corps were not always perfectly timed and felt sloppy en mass. Maybe they were just over it after a decade-long run?
An early court scene was too protracted. It also appeared too confined within the dimensions of the Opera House’s stage.
Thierry Leproust's rocky vertical outcrop for the den of the Seven Dwarfs – miners in this case – tinged more on the carnival with its abseiling aerial choreography, which came across a little clumsy and uncontrolled. Great conceptually, but lacking on delivery.
The cast of Ballet Preljocaj’s Snow White at Sydney Opera House with Thierry Leproust's set. Image: Prudence Upton.
Similarly, Patrick Riou’s moody lighting was a little too dark at times.
Despite its few flaws, Preljocaj’s Snow White is a phenomenal piece of dance for its capacity to transport an age-old tale into a magnetic and bewitching piece of theatre.
A distinctly adult production, it has a short season. My guess is that this is its last run in Australia, so don’t miss it if you are a dance fan – if only to see this innovative French company pushing boundaries.
Choreographer: Angelin Preljocaj
Costumes: Jean Paul Gaultier
Sets: Thierry Leproust
Lighting: Patrick Riou
Music: Gustav Mahler and 79D
Sydney Opera House, Joan Sutherland Theatre
6 – 10 June 2018
Additional dates: Arts Centre Melbourne, 1 – 5 August
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What the stars mean?
- Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
- Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
- Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
- Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
- Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
- Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
- Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
- One star: Awful, to be avoided
- Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level