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Snow White dances to Downtown's dark side

By Donna Perlmutter
Published: Tuesday, March 27, 2012, at 03:16PM
JC Carbonne

A scene from Ballet Preljocaj's "Snow White."

It wasn’t just another happy-ending fairy tale that Angelin Preljocaj brought to the Music Center this weekend past. No, the multi-awarded French choreographer’s “Snow White” had the look of a Grimm graphic novel – all darkness and violence, with just a few whacks at romantic ecstasy.

Remember, Ballet Preljocaj is very much in the modern mode. When the company first came to town (1998) with its “Romeo and Juliet,” we got to see a contemporary version of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers in a gritty, hard-edged reality – using the Prokofiev score.

And when the troupe returned here with Preljocaj’s “Les 4 Saisons” (2009) he reversed course and gave us a whimsical romp full of invention, with masterly movement metaphors for a whole range of interpersonal encounters – including sexual cartoons that drew from Pina Bausch (without that paragon’s depth). Here he used the Vivaldi score.

But for “Blanche Neige” the choreographer leaned on the wrong musical fence: Mahler. Nearly 90 minutes of Mahler, drawn from the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 9th and uncompleted 10th symphonies – with just a few minutes of electronic sound from someone identified as 79 D.

Now Prokofiev actually composed his music as a ballet following the Bard’s narrative. And Vivaldi belongs to that Baroque genre so adaptable to choreography, what with its easy-to-follow rhythmic patterns (just ask Mark Morris who choreographed his brilliant “L’Allegro…” to the Handel oratorio and even grasped its poetic tone).

But Mahler? Give us a break. Couldn’t Preljocaj resist the famous Adagietto from the Mahler 5-- appropriated by many other dance-makers, one of them, Gerald Arpino, charting his exquisitely vulgardisplay of an airborne upside-down-split with pudendal view?

Granted, Visconti underpinned Aschenbach’s death in his movie “Death in Venice” (based on the Mann novel) with the Adagietto. But here we had the lonely, sorrowful, nearly motionless end of the protagonist. So, yes, there are pages of Mahler’s music that can be adapted to a narrative, especially since so much of it seems programmatic and theatrically specific.

Not these pages, though, or an andante from the 9th that consists of drawn-out, long-lined, uninterruptible inwardness. No, this is not music for the purpose of physical fidget, e.g. twists, turns and lifts.

What’s more, we come fresh from Gustavo Dudamel’s Mahler Project, across the street at Disney Hall – where the LA Philharmonic had just done glory to the composer’s work. And to hear this taped abomination -- over-amplified to ear-splitting decibels, in some sort of multiphonic delivery system impacted with fuzzed-up, blurry sound -- added insult to injury.

Visually, though, Preljocaj leaned on his other fence: the runway-like costumes of Jean Paul Gaultier. In a word they were extravagant. Especially those for the main character, the wicked step-mother, aka the Queen. Spike heels, thigh high stockings, a giant head-dress and a big bustle surrounding her wasp waist had Gaëlle Chappaz towering over all others, commandeering her kingdom in broad, terse menacing motion.

But there was none of the clever choreography we saw in earlier Preljocaj work, only narrative sketches that had a certain superficial effect. Seeing the miner-dwarfs scaling walls in a myriad of kaleidoscopic patterns (to the Frère Jacques tune from Mahler’s 1st Symphony, no less), all I could think of was Cirque du Soleil. Preljocaj gives that kind of visual wizardry its head.

No less striking was how the title character was cast against body type. With all the pristine possibilities in his company – those who could dance the languid, romantic duets and also look like a dream vision -- he chose Nagisa Shirai, whose short, turned-in legs proved a handicap to that vision. As her Prince, though, Fabrizio Clemente, was in every way the beloved rescuer.

The audience seemed to love it all.

More to my liking was the Taper Forum show – a rare and extraordinary production of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” How it cuts through the hokum of our hyper-electronic global reality is quite amazing. Here, we have the universe broken down into two old, bemused guys and their existential banter around mundane observations. No more, no less. But they make us laugh at ourselves, at our befuddling mortality.

Oh, the affection we feel between them – real, not made up, quiet, heard between the lines. Alan Mandell as the squiggly, fragile, but demonstrative Estragon, his wiry arms raised high as he prances about and the tall, inquisitive Barry McGovern as helpful sidekick Vladimir (called Gogo and Didi by each other) are unforgettable.

To bridge the cultural distance between them McGovern Americanizes his speech most of the time but lapses into his Irish brogue at times – and what a voice, somewhat akin to the ball-bearings sound of Barry Fitzgerald. James Cromwell serves as an Ichabod Crane-like Pozzo and Hugo Armstrong, gives his show-stopper tirade as Lucky.

Donna Perlmutter is an award-winning critic, journalist and author. Formerly the chief music/dance critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, she contributes to the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

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