Mahler’s Music Used for an Enthralling Snow White

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Ballet Preljocaj’s Snow White, choreography by Angelin Preljocaj: Soloists and Company of Ballet Preljocaj. Sadler’s Wells, London, 10.5.2012. (JPr)

Snow White– Ballet Preljoca–Photo: J C  Carbonne

I am grateful to get many opportunities to see or review varied events; sometimes I take a chance because it sounds interesting, so occasionally I might be a little disappointed but on other occasions – such as this – I have a great time and was glad to have been there. Ballet Preljocaj’s base is the Pavillon Noir at Aix-en-Provence but choreographer Angelin Preljocaj has recently revived his compelling version of the Snow White story that he created in 2008 and the company has taken it on tour. Although part Cirque du Soleil spectacle and full of ‘modern dance’, Preljocaj’s steps are grounded in the tradition of narrative ballet and the evening is all the better for it. His version ditches much that is familiar from Walt Disney’s famous film and utilises the typically darker version of the story by the Brothers Grimm.

There are some slow passages at the beginning but like the Mahler symphonies that provide the music, it was performed without an interval allowing the story – by turns, tragic, magical, amusing, poignant and passionate – to become as involving and engrossing as I could wish from an evening of dance. The advertising stated that the show contained nudity suggesting that it might have been too ‘adult’ for younger children but in fact many are likely to see much worse in the cinema, on TV … or their laptops. Unless I missed anything, the only nudity I saw was when one topless female dancer played the deer that is sacrificed in a very atmospheric forest setting (by Thierry Leproust) in order to save Snow White from being killed; it is its heart that the huntsmen take back to the evil stepmother.

Okay, perhaps it is not suitable for the smallest of children but otherwise this Snow White has something for the child in all of us, whatever our recorded age. There was nothing very sexual about it all either and most of the familiar elements are firmly in place, the evil Queen has her magic mirror and a poisoned apple, also Snow White has seven protectors who these days cannot be dwarves and so are now ’miners’ quarrying a rock face. The plodding Bruder Martin theme from Mahler’s First symphony is a rather prosaic accompaniment to their stunning ‘dance’ as they move and flip up, down and around with their graceful aerial stunts seamlessly integrated into the choreography. This had to be seen to be believed.

Snow White’s mother (Nuryia Nagimova) opens the ballet and in gloomy lighting staggers across the stage, gives birth and dies holding her child that is taken away by her unfeeling father. Later the birthmother reappears flying in as an angel to comfort her daughter after her near death-by-poison-apple. This had been an amazing scene with Snow White attached to the Queen by the apple she has bitten into and shown being dragged about as a consequence until she succumbs.

A number of individual scenes tell the unfolding story and, as suggested earlier, most of the music was a patchwork from Mahler’s symphonies, together some electronic sounds attributed to 79 D. There seemed a few longer pauses than necessary at the beginning as though there was trouble finding the right track on the CD, but things improved as the night went on. Certainly the early scene when the courtiers dance in a quasi-baroque way to entertain Snow White and the King goes on much too long. Eventually her half-clothed suitors – including the Prince she has selected – are driven away from the court by her jealous stepmother.

For me there were many really interesting moments in the dance and the company portrayed different characters in the varying tableaux with great panache. As the story is so well known to its audience I will not dwell too much on any individual scenes. Nevertheless, I particularly enjoyed the ones involving the mirror and the evil stepmother: behind a large frame there was another dancer on the other side replicating the character’s movements and it took me a short while to realise that it was not a ‘real’ mirror as their coordination was so precise!

Mahler’s Second ‘Resurrection’ Symphony seemed to return again and again but no vocal music was used. It was not a surprise to hear the Fifth Symphony Adagietto as a background to the climactic pas de deux where the Prince (Sergio Diaz, a lithe, virile dancer) drags the unresponsive body of Snow White (the suitably pretty, tender and fragile, Virginie Caussin) around the stage in total despair, before – to his initially disbelief – she is ‘brought back to life’ by his kiss. This was a dramatically tragic – but ultimately beautiful – pas de deux that surpassed anything like it I have ever seen in any ballet version of Romeo and Juliet. Caussin and Diaz danced wonderfully well together throughout the entire performance.

With costumes by Jean Paul Gaultier, Snow White was in (no surprise) white but her prince had tangerine pants and the Queen was an S&M fetish fantasy figure in high heels and more than a hint of a bondage black leather suit complete with cape. This did not allow Patrizia Telleschi to do much more than stalk around menacingly and kick her legs out. Later she stripped out of this outfit and wore little more than a one-piece low-cut bathing costume that allowed her to be more expressive with her movement. This was very important because after a brief celebratory wedding scene – love is triumphant, of course – a scrim isolates the evil Queen and Preljocaj reverts to the original Brothers Grimm tale and has her forced into heated iron shoes to dance until she dies. Is this fair justice? he seems to be asking us.

Although there are two new Hollywood Snow White films this year and some aspects of the tale are to be seen in two programmes currently on TV (Grimm and Once Upon a Time), many fairy stories such as this are underused in ballet and our home-grown companies could learn from Ballet Preljocaj’s international success with their version of Snow White. I would happily see this again – but maybe another time live music could be used and not the over-amplified and raucous Classic FM–like ‘Mahler’s GreatI


Jim Pritchard

For forthcoming dance events at Sadler’s Wells visit