Last weekend Sadler's Wells saw the return of French cheorographer Angelin Preljocaj to perform his 2008 adaptation of the Brothers Grimm story Snow White here in London. The dance was billed and described by Preljocaj as being a much darker retelling, more explicitly about the desires and psychologies of the characters. The costumes were designed by the king of corseted Marie Antoinette bustle meets stretched vinyl bondage chic himself: Jean Paul Gaultier. The Dance was performed to extracts from the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. All the elements came together to make this a bit of a special performance, the sets were generously put together with lots of detail and imagination and the music suitably set the tone. The performance started with dimmed lights, smoke machines, the dreamy sets were somewhere between places, half in the dark, half in strips of light. A woman dressed in swathes of wafting black enters the stage her body contorting at awkward angles as she makes her way across the floor. It becomes clear that this is to be the absent "good" mother of the Snow White story, laying down kicking out naked white legs from under her dark robes she violently gives birth, in silence and pain to our heroine, she promptly dies. The dance is full of visceral moments and explicit symbols of sexuality, a red scarf being waved once Snow White has engaged in her first sexual encounter during what seems to be a nymph gang-bang on the rocks of a lake during a spot of sun bathing. After this "red flag" has been flown the group of dancers give it a good sniff, just to check. It seems in this retelling, our Snow White is not quite deserving of her virginal whiter than white moniker.
The Queen/evil stepmother is gloriously imagined. She sweeps on stage with the long black (shiny PVC clad) legs of a giant spider, a huge red and black flowing bustle wafts behind her, she is also in what appears to be a cat/gimp mask...and we know that the evil queen has arrived! She proceeds to violently whirl around the stage taunting the people at court who are performing some quite sexless courtly dances. "I bring the terrible desires of adult female sexuality" you could imagine her saying if the dance had dialogue.
During an interview for Sadler's Wells, Preljocaj explains how he had noticed that women in western culture appear younger for longer, hanging on to their youth for as long as possible and even (heaven forbid!) dressing like their daughters. It is hard to ignore the obvious sexism in the Grimms story and it has not been lost in this dance, it has just changed focus. This retelling is not in the way of Angela Carter in The Bloody Chamber in which all stereotypes are recast and subverted. What Preljocaj is interested in here is the dynamic of desire and anxiety in relationships between older women and younger women, in a Freudian system of a mother daughter Electra Complex.The message is the simple and tired one: adult female sexuality is frightening. Youth is valued above experience and bad (desiring) women must be punished.
The second to last scene in which Snow White appears as dead is very rum indeed. She has been placed apon a sheet of glass so as to appear as if floating. The Prince in his rather child-like bright orange knickerbockers enters the stage and seeing Snow White on her see-through slab falls to the floor. Then things get very odd, he does not fall down simply out of grief but in overpowering desire! He lays prostrate on the floor, then begins to slide his body up and down, pulling himself towards the body of Snow White, he continues to "dry hump" the stage until he has reached the "corpse". After some gestures of arm waving sorrow, the Prince pulls up the body of Snow White and performs the most curious, morally dubious yet visually fascinating dance-frottage with the lifeless body of Snow White. Her body is pushed and pulled, he throws her and catches her, This is all done with great skill in cherographing her movements to resemble a puppet or rag doll. In someways this is one of the most interesting dance sequences of the night as the akward, ridged movements break away from the stock feminised gestures of traditional ballet that is elegant and graceful at all times. I took great pleasure in seeing this dancer do ugly!
Needless to say, after the necro-romp Snow White recovers and is brought back to life by the healing powers of male desire, hurray! The ballet ends with Snow White and the Prince united in front of the court, the sets of golden brick walls behind flank the triumph of youth and beauty and blessed heterosexual marriage. Amen, or not quite, the Evil Queen is brought in and stripped half naked by the Prince's guards, she breaks free of them and with hair flying she commences a dance whirligig, kicking and punching the air in defiance. The Mahler score sores, then at once her out of control dance looses steam and she collapses. This has something of The Red Shoes about it, the story and the film both, that the vain and wanton dancer will dance her self to death, a punishment for lust and of taking pleasure in ones own body. Despite the disappointing presence of some tired-out retrograde representations that even in an adaptation of a Fairy Tale, could have been modernised and subverted to interesting effect -this ballet was absolutely beautiful to look at and I (sometimes guiltily) enjoyed every minute of its two hour run.