Snow White has been “fairest of them all” since her Brothers Grimm days, and with two new big-screen adaptations of the classic fairy tale due out this year, that title is hardly in jeopardy. But until 2008, the innocent brunette had never merited a ballet based on her good-versus-evil story. “I think it’s bizarre no one had done a dance version of ‘Snow White,’” says choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, who is based in Southern France. “You compare it to ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Cinderella,’ and it’s a real thriller.”
His company, Ballet Preljocaj, brings its “Blanche Neige,” a contemporary spin on the Snow White tale, to the Kennedy Center Friday through Sunday for a sold-out run. The traditional story and the Gustav Mahler score remain untouched, but Preljocaj’s vision of the tale is decidedly 21st-century. This means racy costumes by French couture designer Jean Paul Gaultier, elegant dancer-dwarves and choreography that highlights the story’s mash-up of danger and sexuality.
The plot will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the Disney cartoon: A vain, jealous queen tries to get her young, raven-tressed stepdaughter knocked off in the woods only to be foiled by seven short guys and, later, a prince. Still, Preljocaj says his “Snow” feels modern because it’s focused as much on the power struggle between youth and age as its boy-meets-girl-in-glass-coffin setup. “There’s been all this progress in medicine, people live longer and stay younger,” he says. “I kept thinking about powerful women in their 50s, who wear the same clothes and have the same style as their 17-year-old daughters. It’s a deep conflict.”
Preljocaj captures this dynamic through movement — the dominatrix-inspired preening of the evil queen (played in the Kennedy Center production by Patrizia Telleschi) contrasted with the coltish footwork of Snow White (played by Virginie Caussin and Nagisa Shirai). Sets are abstract rather than storybook sweet: The queen’s mirror is a massive proscenium of sorts, in which the villainess spies on her young rival; the forest Snow White hides is alternately foreboding and comforting, with stark black-and-white trees and toadstool-like poufs.
It’s not a new story. But Preljocaj’s inventive way of delivering it — just wait till you see how our heroine eats that poison apple — is a return to the childhood thrill of fairy tales both grim and glamorous. And that’s fresher and more compelling then any rendition of “Heigh-Ho.”
Back in Black
Dopey the dwarf rocks a droopy robe in the Disney version of “Snow White.” But in “Blanche Neige,” Ballet Preljocaj’s not-for-kiddies take on the Grimm fairy tale, French fashion superpower John Paul Gaultier summons a more sophisticated, edgy look for Snow White, her height-challenged friends and the evil queen. Best known for outfitting Madonna onstage (he’s the man behind those ’90s bullet bras) Gaultier applies a similarly showy vibe to the queen’s ensemble of dominatrix-esque latex bodysuit, thigh-high boot and a flame-dipped cape. “The queen is so very cruel, and we wanted you to see that from her costume,” says company director Angelin Preljocaj. “Yet she’s also dark and passionate, which explains the black and red.” Still, there are moments when she appears more drag queen than grand dame.
Snow White gets prettier, more ethereal garb. “The costume is one part dress and one part almost like a baby’s swaddling,” says Preljocaj. “Jean Paul had this idea that every time she’d turn, you see a different side of her — woman, young girl, woman, voilà!” True to her name, the heroine is in snowy hues both for her dances in the woods and her eventual happily ever after.