Snow White at Sadler’s Wells

Snow White

Virginie Caussin – Snow White
Patrizia Telleschi – Stepmother

Angelin Preljocaj – Choreography
Jean-Paul Gaultier – Costumes
Gustav Mahler – Music
79D – Additional music
Thierry Leproust – Set design
Patrick Riou assisted by Cécile Giovansili and Sébastien Dué – Lighting

Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler

Reviewed: 10 May, 2012
Venue: Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

The name of Angelin Preljocaj is not overly familiar to British dance-goers and does not quicken the pulse of those who do know his work. It is good to report that his Snow White, a co-production between several mighty state-sponsored European arts organisations, is rather good. What seems on paper to promise a punishing 110-minute straight-through helping of Eurodance, does in fact pass by rapidly and, for the most part, enjoyably. True there is a natural break for an interval when the curtain falls after about 70 minutes, and the first court scene is an overlong bore, but Preljocaj has created a gratifyingly dark Snow White, true in many respects to the original story, shaking off any cloying Disney sentimentality.

It looks spectacular with simple but highly effective sets from Thierry Leproust who provides a darkly menacing wood, and a rock face up and down which the seven troglodyte dwarves abseil vertiginously. The lighting by Riou, Giovansili and Dué is virtuosic, creating atmosphere with extraordinary effect – the wood is dark and mysterious, the Lord of the Rings-style opening with Snow White’s heavily pregnant mother played in a moody, smoke-filled penumbra. Their work displays the prevailing dark aesthetic. Preljocaj’s collaborators are not all entirely first-class, the weak link being the household name and fashion superstar Jean-Paul Gaultier, whose costumes are either hideously over-fussy, utterly ridiculous or plain ugly – poor Snow White is saddled with perhaps the most unflattering outfit in dance today, a sort of ruched, all-in-one nappy affair which made the impressive Virginie Caussin look dumpy (which she is not) – she is even given a wedding dress at the end that looks like a light fitting. Poor thing. The Queen Stepmother topped it all though, with her Leigh Bowery dominatrix outfit; attended by a pair of dancers dressed as cats, poor Patrizia Telleschi looked straight-out of the floor-show on some adults-only Volga cruise.

Preljocaj tells the tale well, even if we are not quite sure who the loin-cloth clad lovelies are in one scene. He retains much of the original: a glass coffin (here a Perspex sheet upon which the ‘dead’ Snow White is laid out), the killing of a stag by the Queen’s henchmen to provide her with Snow White’s heart, the red-hot shoes the Stepmother is forced to wear as punishment for her crimes and, importantly, a pervading atmosphere of sex – it is, after all, very much the story of a girl’s awakening. The opening is effectively set, as Snow White’s mother dies in childbirth but the narrative we then expect to establish her character is put on-hold for an interminable court scene with frankly tedious dances for the corps of sixteen dancers. Only then do things get going with the arrival of Queen, Snow White’s flight, and all the rest over the remaining twenty scenes. In fact, the work gets better and better as it progresses, each character offering a different movement vocabulary – the jerky movements of the stag are mesmeric, the dwarves display a nervy energy, and Snow White herself a welcome degree of lyricism, not least in her several pas de deux with Sergio Diaz’s Prince. Indeed, their duet when he comes to grieve at her coffin is, even if a trifle over-long, inventively crafted, Caussin mastering totally the considerable demands of dancing a pas de deux as an inert ‘corpse’.

The choreographer has gone for an intensely theatrical reading, far away from the po-faced contortions and spasms that so often characterise contemporary dance. Indeed, there are many moments of Cirque du Soleil-style wonder, not least in the delightful abseiling by the seven dwarves – chapeau to the dancers not only for mastering that skill so well but also then to dance on in harnesses – no mean feat with jumps and spins to deliver. The ‘dead’ Snow White, having eaten of the Queen’s poisoned apple, is visited by the spirit of her mother who flies in and lifts her daughter fifteen feet aloft before setting her down again. Pure theatrical magic.

All praise to the cast, not least the delectable Caussin as the eponymous heroine and Telleschi as the Stepmother – it is no mean feat to carry off that costume – her transformation into the old crone who would gull the girl was done with such speed that none of us saw it happen. Indeed the viciousness with which she forces Snow White to bite of her apple, and the subsequent dragging of the hapless girl around the stage, was raw in its intensity. Three cheers also for the indefatigable dwarves who climb, bound and jog their way tirelessly, and the unnamed Stag – a moment of true calm and beauty.

Controversially, Preljocaj has selected several bleeding chunks from eight of Mahler’s symphonies along with some atmospheric music from someone/thing called 79D. It sounds bizarre, but if one can get over the outrage of his (ab)using Mahler, the music has been carefully and successfully chosen and it strongly helps drive the narrative along.

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