{Dd} Critical Conversation: The Spectacle of Ballet Preljocaj’s Snow White

 In 2014, Archives, Best Of

Alejandra Ianone and Candice Thompson went on a date to see Ballet Preljocal’s Snow White at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. The following conversation reflects on the impressions, both large and small, that this New York premiere left on them.

AI: I mentioned to you as we were sitting down in the theater that I hadn’t been to a show at the Koch Theater in years. You mentioned that you had been there recently, but couldn’t recall what you had gone to see. This got me thinking—is it anyway notable, or thought-provoking, or __________ that Ballet Preljocaj and The Joyce presented this Snow White (and this kind of dance work) in the Koch theater, as opposed to another space like The Joyce or BAM?


CT: I assumed it was a logistical decision having to do with the size of the house and stage, but perhaps the Koch is making a push to start branching out. I know they presented Paris Opera Ballet last summer, but obviously this modern presentation of Angelin Perljocaj’s Snow White does seem more in the vein of BAM’s Next Wave festival.


AI: It was probably, at least, in part a logistical decision. In any event, I’m glad the decision was made, and I hope it indicates a shift in Lincoln Center’s artistic atmosphere going forward.


After the performance I was speaking to another audience member and was surprised to hear her response. She came away from this production of Snow White highly dissatisfied, especially when it came to Preljocaj’s presentation of the central story. I asked her to elaborate, and she replied that she found Preljocaj’s treatment of the narrative incoherent and scattered. Her impression totally threw me off. I did not have that experience at all! In fact, I thought that the main themes of the story were clearly perceptible, and neatly arranged.


True, Preljocaj’s choreography did not incorporate the same structural elements and pantomime gestures that might lead one through a classical version of this ballet. But, even if an audience was expecting to have these signposts as guidance, not having them wouldn’t make this production hard to follow on the whole. From my point of view, the story was right in front of everyone’s nose!


What about you? Were you able to follow the narrative that Preljocaj and his dancers were unfolding for the audience? Did you think the story was coherent? Cohesive?


CT: Yes, I agree with you and disagree with her, I thought the narrative was both coherent—in that the moves and the mime made sense of the story— and cohesive. There were moments when the choreography was more presentational, if not explicitly mime in the traditional sense. I was totally floored by the apple scene. The Evil Queen and her two cohorts spent a good amount of time preparing the apple and transforming the Queen’s costume into that of the Old Hag. And later, when Snow White encounters the newly disguised Queen in the forest and accepts the apple, her mouth remains glued to it as she is whipped violently all over the stage. The poisoning is clear and visceral.

Photo by Jean Claude Carbonne.

Photo by Jean Claude Carbonne.


The only place that tripped me up was the costumes by Gaultier. They were sensational to look at—in particular the evil queen’s dungeon chic corseted and high collared leotard with dramatically busselled skirt and knockout thigh high boots— but was a little confused by how Snow White’s Grecian style tunic/loin cloth/sort of dress fit in. Obviously it signified her purity and showed off the incredible definition of her glutes and legs, but it was off for me in relation to the whole of the production design. What did you think of the costumes?


AI: Visually stunning, and sometimes distracting. Snow White’s tunic was teeny-tiny! At times my concern as to whether or not that costume was a wardrobe malfunction waiting to happen pulled me from the story and from her phenomenal dancing.


CT: But Gaultier made up for it all with Snow White’s delectable, layer cake of a wedding dress. Worn in the final scene, each tier was full of white fringe, laying bare the hoops of the skirt when the prince twirled her.


AI: Her wedding dress was just gorgeous, and fun to look at! The dress did not allow for much variety of movement in her body, but the movement of the fringe was captivating.


Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of costumes in a dance piece. Often, dancers or choreographers leave costuming a dance composition to the last minute, whether because they don’t know what to do about that element, or they see it as less important than other elements, or for some other reasons. But, costumes should not be treated as mere icing on a dance-cake! In this Snow White, I got the sense that Gaultier’s costumes were crucial, playing a central role in creating a world-on-stage for the audience and, I imagine, for the performers as well. Another reason why this production was cohesive!


Photo by Jean Claude Carbonne.

Photo by Jean Claude Carbonne.

You are a costume designer, so perhaps you could provide some real-world insight on the thought that is given to costumes. Is there a tendency to leave them to the last second? If dance makers take that route, what are some of the common outcomes?


CT: It really depends on the production and the choreographer, and of course, the budget, but in the case this ballet, it seemed money and preparation time/thought were no object. And if we assume that to be true, that would probably mean these costumes were being developed over the many months, if not years, it took Preljocal to conceive of and choreograph this ballet. Though I wondered about the appropriateness of her tunic, the ensemble’s costumes all made sense for the characters and feel of the production design as a whole—which could be described as dramatic, and yet minimal. The same could be said of the various tricks that were employed…


AI: Even when money and preparation time are limited, I think dance artists and dance makers should dedicate ample time to thoughtfully consider and plan costuming. If not for the success of the composition, at least for the opportunity to collaborate with another person.


Any thoughts on the many uses of spectacle incorporated in the composition (i.e., the golden glitter falling from above, the dwarves inverted, rock-climbing wall choreography, the elevator thrones, the topless deer)?


CT: Perhaps my favorite sleight of hand though came in the very beginning when the knight disappeared behind a column with the baby Snow White only to emerge a half second later waltzing with a pint size Snow White only to again disappear and re-emerge twirling the adult Snow white. It was deceptively simple, but fresh and effective. Put a smile on my face. What did you think of that sequence?


AI: Loved that! But, I wished it had happened more than just twice. Of course, I guess incorporating a baby, child, tween, teen, and adult Snow White would have been pretty impractical, both choreographically and when it came to tour logistics.


CT: I also delighted in the dwarves coming out of the rock wall and rappelling up and down the set, almost in a nod to Trisha Brown. I could have watched that section go on for much longer than it did.


Photo by Jean Claude Carbonne.

Photo by Jean Claude Carbonne.

AI: What set the dwarves’ section apart for me was that this use of spectacle directly related to the part of the story being presented to us at that time. In the story of Snow White, the dwarves are miners. So, the rock-climbing wasn’t just cool to look at—and it was really cool to look at—it was clever. And, it was clever because it made sense. Of course the dwarves danced on a rock-climbing wall! Where else would they dance?


CT: In that vein, I thought the trick mirror was very effective, though the queen’s choreography in front of it was not memorable.


AI: The other spectacular elements did not move past “Wow, that looks cool.” Special effects are great, but I’m more interested in them when they are incorporated as vital elements in storytelling. I’ve also been thinking back on the movement itself. Does anything in particular set Preljocaj’s movement vocabulary apart from that of other contemporary choreographers? 


Photo by Jean Claude Carbonne.

Photo by Jean Claude Carbonne.

CT: Though Snow White was a truly ethereal creature, and her duets with the prince had their elevated moments, the dancers or rather the dance moves for the most part did not really move me. The spectacles and design were more distinct and left more of an impression on me than the steps.


AI: I think what struck me most was how much a change of perspective can enliven a commonplace spatial arrangement, which I saw primarily in the dwarves’ staggered lines and V-shaped  formations  as they climbed the upstage wall. Otherwise, I did not get much from the movement—mostly unison phrases in trios and large groups, quite a bit counterpoint between two or more movement phrases. Overall, the choreography seemed more like a movement study, or moments of a final exercise across the floor in dance class, as opposed to sections of a dance composition. Eventually, I found most of the vocabulary boring, or at least overused.


CT: I enjoyed the camaraderie of the floor work dance between Snow white and the dwarves. I also enjoyed the doubling in the first pas de deux with Snow white and the prince—how they began in silence and then repeated their duet to music.


AI: There was no intermission or scheduled pause, but there was a lengthy point during which the curtain went down, thoughts on that?


CT: I was actually pleasantly surprised that a story ballet was condensed into two acts with a short pause. It definitely did not need to be longer. However, structurally, there was a slow build to the story and what seemed like a haphazard denouement.


AI: I was not a fan of the pause because it took us out of the fairytale. All around me, people’s cellphones started lighting up. It killed the magic for a moment. But, I was a fan of that slow build you mentioned. My favorite part of experiencing this production is that I felt like I always had a chance to let the movement really sink in, whether because phrases and transitions were done slowly and deliberately, or because we saw those phrases and images many times. My eyes were allowed time to absorb the images presented to me, and I was so happy to have that opportunity. The experience made me think on this article by Susan Sontag, where she argues that we should experience the sensuous surface of art instead of subjecting it to interpretation. I’m not saying that we ought to apply that claim to this Snow White, just that this was one of the first times I was aware of dance’s sensuous surface.


CT: Yes, it existed on the surface quite well. So often dance experiences can be ruined when the audience feels confused or dumb—unable to interpret what is happening on the stage—and this ballet deftly avoided that pitfall. Part of that I would attribute to pleasant cohesion of the design and dance and the other part, I think is owed to the fact that this is a known story. Other than the ending, I never had a need to wonder about the meaning or content and could just enjoy the form, or in this case the spectacles. Which does not mean that I think this is an easy task…in fact, I think reinventing the classics can be the most forbidding task of all. Along with inventiveness, it seems to me that Preljocal applied incredible restraint in sticking close to the original fairy tale as we know it.


AI: But, we were not sure what to do with that ending.


CT: The ending was insane. The queen was stripped down to her provocative leotard and given what appeared to be garden clogs to put on. The curtain fell on the wedding party watching her dance a frenetic soft shoe. I had no idea what her fate was—to dance in ugly shoes to death?


AI: I read up on this after I left the theater. Preljocaj concluded this production with the original ending of Snow White, in which the evil queen is sentenced to dance until death in red-hot, iron shoes. I don’t think the garden clogs, the final movements, or the speed with which the final scene happened made any of this clear. The ending just seemed rushed, which was odd given the measured pace of everything that had come before it.

Maybe we should we have read up on this Snow White beforehand to prepare. But, that seems odd to say. What do you think?


CT: No, I don’t think any amount of study ahead of time would have made me appreciate it more, if anything, It might have made me more nitpicky. Because now that I know they were supposed to be red-hot, iron shoes, I am wondering why there wasn’t an effect in use to portray that. Why didn’t they look red or hot? But while it was certainly not revolutionary retelling of this fairytale, it was certainly a pleasant and entertaining night of live performance.


AI: If you could use only 3 phrases to describe this re telling of Snow White, what would you choose?


CT: Whimsical, sensual, and accessible. It was a really lush production that though dark, was still a lot of fun and stayed true to the nature of the fairy tale as fantastic morality tale.


AI: Sexy, shocking, and deliberate.

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