A Different Enchantment words russell shipman, li liao-hanusiewicz
One of the world’s great choreographers turns a fairytale into another kind of magic Cinderella, The Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel… fairytales often make great live theatre. It must be something about the magic of fantasy merging with the enchantment of dance that has attracted choreographers and composers to the stories of writers like the Brothers Grimm. This year, as part of Le French May, Angelin Preljocaj brings just such a merging to Hong Kong with his unconventional take on the story of the princess who finds refuge with a gang of dwarves. Snow White has all the ingredients of a fantastic dance – a beautiful princess apparently destined to die; a wicked queen with a magical, if lethal, touch; seven very quirky dwarves and the most eligible prince in several kingdoms. Oh, and not to forget the magic mirror, the mischievous catalyst, who, after purring ‘Queen, you are full fair, ‘tis true, but Snow White is fairer than you,’ must have snuggled back against the wall to watch the ensuing mayhem. Such a fairytale must surely be a choreographer’s dream – it certainly struck Angelin Preljocaj so. Preljocaj is the avant garde dance master and director of Ballet Preljocaj who made a name for himself with such works as Roméo et Juliette working with comic book creator Enki Bilal in 1990, Les 4 saisons with artist Fabrice Hyber in 2005, and Helikopter (2001) and Eldorado – Sonntags Abschied (2007) with composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. A comic book writer, an artist and a composer – any suggestion that Preljocaj is wide ranging in his work and inspiration cannot be far off the truth. He says he finds his muse in literature, music, poetry, film – in fact in any kind of story or idea he comes across that will let him create breathtaking dance productions appealing to modern audiences. And that doesn’t mean he hasn’t also choreographed classical works for the great ballet houses of the world such as the Paris Opera Ballet, La Scala of Milan and the New York City Ballet. Preljocaj was born to Albanian immigrant parents in 1957 in Sucyen-Brie, France, and began his career in classical dance before turning contemporary under the guidance of Karin Waehner at the Schola Cantorum in Paris. He moved to New York in 1980 where he worked with Merce Cunningham of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. In 1984, Preljocaj founded his own company, Ballet Preljocaj, in Champigny-sur-Marne; his resume also includes numerous projects beyond the stage such as short films and several full-length features including Un Trait d’Union and Annonciation. The story of Snow White caught the dance maestro’s fancy after he had worked for some time on abstract works like Empty Moves (2004 and 2007) and Eldorado – Sonntags Abschied and had decided it was time to find a more concrete story to play with. He
was, he says, getting into a rut and had to find something to take him in a completely different direction. That direction revealed itself when he was reading Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to his children one night. It struck him what a great dance the fairytale would make. But he wasn’t thinking in terms of romance in the style of Swan Lake or Romeo and Juliet. Preljocaj is as much interested in symbol and psychology as great love stories and he describes his vision of Snow White as ‘Oedipus in reverse. The wicked stepmother is without doubt the central character in the tale. She is the one who I examine through her narcissistic determination not to give up on seduction and her role as a woman, even if it means sacrificing her stepdaughter.’ He was also attracted to the story because it is so well known. ‘All I had to do was to remain faithful to Grimm’s story, adding my own interpretation of the symbols present, helped along by Bruno Bettelheim’s La Psychanalyse des Contes de Fees which I read attentively.’ And so he looked past the fairytale for children to find symbols that also delve into the adult psyche.
How otherwise could he set his tale of a princess and a poisoned apple to the monumental symphonies of Gustav Mahler, romantic as they are, with their vast existential themes? How could he and designer Jean Paul Gautier dress that wicked stepmother in a red and black outfit complete with high heels and a riding whip that almost screams the word “dominatrix”? And how else could Preljocaj and Gautier drape their Snow White in something suggesting both the purity of a child and the revelations of a pole dancer? Her costume looks like a cross between a slightly undersized diaper and a somewhat risqué evening gown. But that is not to say the choreographer has lost the magic of the fairytale – he intends his ballet to be just as enchanting as the story he told his children at bedtime one night in 2007, if not quite as innocent. And so one of Preljocaj’s greatest choreographic highlights in this production is the introduction of the seven dwarves. They appear out of holes in a great wall that rises the whole height of the stage (in the fairytale the dwarves are miners), and on the ends of wires and bungees create an aerial dance display in unison that would have even children screaming with delight. Preljocaj may be fascinated by the symbolism but he never forgets the magic. The ballet was conceived in 2007 and premiered at the Biennale de la danse de Lyon in France in September 2008. It has since toured extensively and won the prestigious Crystal Globe for the Best Dance Show of the Year in 2009. It visits Hong Kong for Le French May 2010 on May 14 and 15 at 8:15pm and at 3:00pm on May 16 at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Grand Theatre. Tickets are $780, $560, $440, $280 and $150 from Urbtix: 2734 9009. 06MAY2010BCMAGAZINE