Sexually charged and with plenty of nods to fetish – this is not your grandmother’s Snow White
There’s a poisoned apple, a magic mirror, seven unlikely saviours and an evil queen driven by jealousy to murder her stepdaughter, but Ballet Preljocaj’s take on Snow White is charged with an erotic energy you don’t find in most takes on Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales.
At the centre of this contemporary ballet – choreographed by French innovator Angelin Preljocaj for his company in 2008 – is a conflict between young princess Snow White and her dominating (and dominatrix) stepmother, whom Snow White usurps in the beauty stakes when she has her own sexual awakening. And in a society where a woman’s beauty is her currency, what’s an old queen to do but take out the competition?
Even if not all the choreography hits the mark – an early court scene overstays its welcome and seems clumsily adapted for the dimensions of the Sydney Opera House stage – there’s enough invention in the movement and visuals to make this a compelling night of theatre. And the use of Mahler’s symphonies, augmented by electronic music by 79 D, is seamless, even without the oomph of a live orchestra.
There are some inspired scenes here, including Snow White’s birth at the very start of the show and the seven abseiling dwarves – rendered as non-dwarf miners – who dance horizontally around each other on the back wall. The movement is eclectic but sometimes lacks cohesion, and some sequences with the corps were a little sloppy on opening night.
The choreography for the queen is suitably powerful and sassy, and it was danced with great power by Cecilia Torres Morillo. She beautifully embodies a woman under enormous stress and is appropriately dominating when forcing the apple on Snow White. But the best dancing here is in the pas de deux between the Prince (Jean-Charles Jousni) and Snow White (Verity Jacobsen). Or more accurately, Snow White’s lifeless body, thrown about by a tormented Prince, horrified to find his unconscious lover. An apple a day might keep the doctor away, but not a handsy Prince who probably should be a bit gentler with his lover’s non-responsive body.
The production was always going to be on the sexy side with French couturier Jean Paul Gaultier designing the costumes, all soft and flowing fabrics contrasted with and constrained by stiff harnesses. Despite Patrick Riou’s dark and moody lighting and Thierry Leproust’s stylish and stripped-back set, the costumes come close to stealing the show and establish the world and characters within it perfectly. Snow White is draped in virginal white with plenty of flesh strategically on display. The Queen, by contrast, is in a black fetish-inspired corset with a floor-length cape. Where Snow White dances barefoot, the Queen struts about in thigh-high boots with spiky heels, accompanied by two black cats in full body velvet body suits – eat your heart out, Andrew Lloyd Webber. Gaultier’s only misstep may be the Prince’s get-up; I’m not convinced high-waisted peach pants scream “knight in shining armour”.
There are plenty of thrills here, but maybe not quite the insight or transformation you’d expect from one of France’s leading contemporary choreographic talents. Fundamentally, Snow White is a story about jealousy and the dangers of vanity, but this ballet plays into stereotypes about women’s roles without questioning the pressures placed upon them to fit a certain mould. Despite the clear entertainment value, it seems like a missed opportunity.