The cultural and social determinants of fairytales and their place in cultural and personal memory might render them rich ground for psychoanalysis, but in French-Albanian choreographer Angelin Preljocaj’s adaptation of Snow White, the visual and symbolic referents are switched to a reverse Oedipus complex that would make even Freud blush. The evil Stepmother is a cunning manipulator of her public presence- suited like a dominatrix, heavy black make-up lining her angular cheekbones- travelling between delusion and dream, and Snow White a sinuous, fresh presence exuding sexuality in a revealing white dress that floats in the air at every step.
Snow White toys with a contemporary iconography of femininity veiled in myth, touching on the undertones of the story as imagined in the 19th century by the Brothers Grimm. By excavating the sexual, the uncanny and the confrontational in the fairytale through a visually spectacular and dense aesthetic, Preljocaj creates a landscape of noir romanticism, albeit one that is humorously self-conscious, toying with the dense, excessive romanticism of Mahler’s symphonies that accompany the piece. It’s an intellectualised spectacle that’s arresting and aggressive, overtly concerned with its own image. It’s lyrical, but never poetic, rendering each character a distinct physicality that flirts with the traditional language of ballet, displacing precision for personality.
Our experience is shaped by this sexual disposition, but it doesn’t by any means take over the unfolding narrative, and at times, it’s appropriated into a cunning ambiguity in the relationships that unfold onstage. Snow White befriends not dwarves, but tall, handsome mine labourers, who in an impressively choreographed scene, descend in aerial acrobatics from caverns in a stone wall against the rhythmical, playful background of Mahler’s first symphony, surrounding the eloped princess as a dangerous yet protective shield.
The iconic takes centre stage in the production, allowing time for every image to be consumed, from the full-height golden wall of the castle to the tall mirror that divides the stage, surrounded by a dark cloth. This darkness is a key visual motif in the piece, serving as contour for the emotional valances of every scene, be it the Stepmother forcing Snow White to eat the blood red apple in a muscular fight, or the opening scene itself, in which a pregnant Queen all veiled in black passes away into the depth of the night as her baby is born. Jean Paul Gautier’s corsetry and costumes adds another layer of the mythical to the story, framing flesh and muscle in erotic tandems, but also referencing more gothic, fairy-tale elements, putting veils and leather together.
The first half of the piece follows a succinct but fraught dialogue with an almost baroque balletic language yet this flirtation is punctured by the divergent rhythms of the individual dancers, with their fluid, gliding movements. Once Snow White flees to the forest, the tone changes, and we move from the stuffiness of interior landscapes to the expanse of the outdoor, a physical vocabulary that is mesmerising and spectacular in its breadth. A dancer performing as a deer makes its way through the forest through jolted movements, cutting through air with its piercing golden antlers, his heart removed as a sacrifice for the princesses. A particularly entrancing moment comes in the encounter between the prince and a seemingly dead Snow White, as she is lifted from the coffin- it’s a romantic yet playful dance with a lyrical and playful feel- Snow White’s body is both extremely alert and immobile, living and dead, a fluidity and precision that are impeccable and evocative.
Preljocaj’s concept is inspired by the writings of the infamous psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who contended that society should not conceal the darkness of fairytales, their engagement with death, violence and sexual awakening, instead allow children to encounter these in the fictitious narrative scapes in order to facilitate a more natural relationship. Preljocaj develops this dialogue in a spectacular manner, bringing an aesthetic of power- with gold, dark and silver puncturing the stage- as well as a territorial and feminine fight between Snow White and her Stepmother. This ‘Snow White’ complex feels fraught, and at times, underdeveloped- Preljocaj is interested in how society encourages older women to hold on to their youth and beauty at a cost towards their daughters. Despite the dramatic emphasis, the confrontational element between two women is tender and subtle, less precipitous than expected, bathed in the delicacy of the physicality, the movement of costumes and the grandeur of the setting.