Ballet Preljocaj, based in Aix-En-Provence, is in the midst of an eight-city world tour, with Minneapolis the fifth stop on that tour (the company has already visited Davis, California, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Chapel Hill, North Carolina; the company is soon to visit Ann Arbor, Michigan, Mexico City and London).
The company’s visit to the Twin Cities occurred last weekend, when the company presented its full-length “Snow White”, created for twenty-six dancers, at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis. My parents, my sister-in-law, and Joshua and I attended Friday night’s performance.
Ballet Preljocaj’s “Snow White” is not a version for children, as the local presenter, the Northrop Dance Series, made abundantly clear in its brochures and advertisements. The Preljocaj “Snow White” is an adult version of the tale, much darker and much more wicked than the children’s version—and with a focus on sex.
I have never had much of an interest in probative analyses of fairy tales, analyses that attempt to discern deeper meanings lurking beneath the surface of ancient children’s fables. The once-fashionable work of Bruno Bettelheim, now largely discredited, has always left me cold.
In any case, Angelin Preljocaj, choreographer of Ballet Preljocaj, would not be a source of penetrating analysis in this particular field, at least based upon his work in “Snow White”. Preljocaj is interested in sex, and little else; his treatment of “Snow White” had sex as its driving force, sex as its only theme, sex as its only plot device, sex as the only character trait visible onstage. The work was a perfect example of vulgar, pretentious bad taste—which is the purest definition of “kitsch” I know.
Preljocaj possesses some modest skill as a choreographer. He knows how to present a story, he knows how to create passable ensemble dances, he knows how to fashion a creditable pas de deux. The problem, in “Snow White”, was that there were twenty minutes of satisfactory choreography in a work that lasted just under two hours (the work was performed without intermission). The rest was filler, with much posturing, and much melodrama. Sitting through “Snow White” was like sitting through a performance of some ancient creaky stage vehicle, such as Robert E. Sherwood’s “Abe Lincoln In Illinois”, in which the dialogue was mimed and not spoken.
Preljocaj understands ballet vocabulary—in the 1990s, he was asked to create a work for New York City Ballet—but his “Snow White” was a modern-dance work with a few nods to traditional ballet technique. Dancers were barefoot or clod in shoes; there was no en pointe work. The dancing was centered on the lower body, not the upper body.
Much of “Snow White” was old-fashioned pantomime—yet the pantomime was derived not from 19th-Century ballet pantomime a la Marius Petipa but from the pantomime of early silent-screen melodrama. No American choreographer would dare such a thing.
Why was this piece of claptrap, resembling nothing so much as an old episode of some particularly cheesy late-night music variety show from 1960s French television, inflicted on American viewers?
The answer, I suspect, lies in the elaborate stage designs for “Snow White”, created by some of France’s most-renowned designers. While the names of the designers were meaningless to me, followers of fashion would recognize in an instant names from France’s most-hallowed houses of couture.
And the stage designs, costume designs and lighting designs for “Snow White” were, indeed, elaborate and complex, as elaborate and complex as designs for the most complicated Broadway musical. What the designs were not, however, was “attractive”—the “Snow White” designs were bold in their lack of visual appeal; they were some of the ugliest stage designs I have ever seen.
Played throughout the show was a tape of music of Gustav Mahler (Ballet Preljocaj, even in its home theater, always dances to taped music). It was jarring to hear snippets from different Mahler works played out of context—just as it was jarring listening to music of Mahler while watching onstage shenanigans whose genuine origins resided in burlesque.
Curiosity alone had compelled us to go to “Snow White”. We had hoped there might be something worthwhile in a project that had sounded awful on paper—but the “Snow White” experience was just as dreadful in reality as it had seemed in theory.
In future, we should keep our curiosity in check. “Snow White” provided an enervating, even gruesome, evening.
On our drive home, my parents made a revelation: they had experienced an evening similar to “Snow White” thirty years ago.
In the words of my father:
When we were your age, we saw “The Idiot”, a full-length ballet based upon the Dostoyevsky novel. “The Idiot” had been devised by Valery Panov, who is no longer even remembered. “The Idiot”, I think, had been created for Berlin Opera Ballet.
“The Idiot”, too, had featured amazingly complicated stage designs, and a lengthy cut-and-paste score borrowed from thirty-some different pieces of Shostakovich. Like “Snow White”, tons of money had been thrown at “The Idiot”—and the thing was so impossibly inept, it simply rotted onstage. It had to be seen to be believed.
Some idiot made the decision to send “The Idiot” to America for a tour of American dance venues—and the thing was hooted off the stage here, as anyone might have predicted. It was so vividly bad, your mother and I still remember it, even though we saw it before you were born.
“The Idiot” got disastrous reviews and bombed at the box office. Afterward, we said to ourselves that we were, in a way, fortunate: no other European company would ever again send our way such a bad full-length story ballet. The ridicule heaped on “The Idiot” would be remembered by impresarios for years to come, and atrocious European story ballets would be kept strictly on home turf in future.
Well . . . you have just seen your “Idiot” . . . and your mother and I have now seen a second “Idiot”, which we had never expected to see.
Remember it well.
Unlike your mother and me, you may not have a second “Idiot” in your future.