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A haute couture fairy tale ballet

Ballet Preljocaj joined with fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier for its 'Snow White.'

March 18, 2012|Adam Tschorn
  • Ballet Preljocaj's Snow White (Blanche Neige) is set to Mahler symphonies, with costumes by Jean Paul Gaultier and sets by Thierry Leproust.
Ballet Preljocaj's Snow White (Blanche Neige) is set to Mahler symphonies,… (©Jean-Claude Carbonne,…)

It would be easy to see the U.S. premiere of Ballet Preljocaj's avant-garde production of "Snow White" ("Blanche Neige"), with music by Mahler, costumes by fashion legend Jean Paul Gaultier and a Thierry Leproust-designed set, as an attempt to capitalize on the current fascination with the darker take on traditional fairy tales that have been cropping up on TV sets and hitting theaters.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, March 19, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Ballet Preljocaj: An article in the March 18 Arts & Books section said that the Ballet Preljocaj's "Snow White" would receive its U.S. premiere this weekend at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Its premiere was Saturday at the Mondavi Center at UC Davis.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, March 25, 2012 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Ballet Preljocaj: A March 18 article said that the Ballet Preljocaj's "Snow White" would receive its U.S. premiere this weekend at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Its actual premiere was March 17 in the Mondavi Center at UC Davis.

The American premiere is this weekend at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, but the scheduling is a coincidence, says the artistic director and choreographer of the edgy French ballet company, Angelin Preljocaj.

"There was interest in a tour very soon after the ballet's premiere at the Biennale [de la danse de Lyon] in September 2008," he said. "But there were a lot of economic problems in your country, so the idea was postponed. And now things look better, so we're happy to be bringing it to the U.S."

Although Preljocaj's eponymous dance company, founded in 1984, may be unfamiliar to stateside audiences, its cutting-edge, abstract approach has earned it a reputation as one of France's preeminent dance troupes. Preljocaj's version of "Snow White" has earned critical praise in European and Asian performances (though dubbed "too hot for mainland [China] youngsters" by the South China Morning Post) and won France's Globes de Cristal award for Dance Spectacle of the year in 2009.

Still, the timing couldn't be better, and it's not just because of the two big-screen versions of the Snow White story headed for multiplexes. Or because an exhibition covering the fashion designer's body of work, "The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk," is on tour (it begins a five-month run at San Francisco's De Young Museum on March 24).

What really makes Preljocaj's take on the Grimm Brothers' story is an of-the-moment psychoanalytical exploration of youth, beauty, aging and jealousy that could happen only in the era of Botox shots and tummy tucks. (It's also one the 11-and-under crowd should probably skip -- unless you want a long conversation on the drive home.)

" 'Snow White' is really the most modern of the fairy tales," Preljocaj explained. "Because of the progress in science, medicine and genetics, people live longer and live younger, which makes possible the conflict between a 50-year-old woman who is full of beauty and seduction and a young girl of 16. A hundred years ago, this was not possible -- at age 35 you were an old person."

Which is why, for Preljocaj, the costumes were a crucial part of the equation. "In some ballets, the belle-mere -- the stepmother -- is played by a man because the idea is to show someone who is bad, [a] grotesque, you know? But to me she is not a grotesque, she's a really beautiful woman. And the tension in the ballet is the choice between two women: one very young woman with fresh beauty and one very mature, beautiful and strong woman. That's what we discussed with Jean Paul Gaultier: How she can be on one hand very dark but on the other hand very beautiful and feminine."

Preljocaj decided Gaultier was the one to help him breathe life into his fairy tale after attending the designer's January 2008 mermaid-themed haute couture collection.

"It was really my very first idea. When I was thinking about who would be the costume designer, I went to see a defiles [runway show] of Jean Paul Gaultier's that was based on [Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale] 'The Little Mermaid,' and it was incredible. There were these girls with dripping wet hair, there were starfish, and everything was incredibly inspired by the seas and the elements of fish. I remember thinking he was the right guy for this production."

Once Gaultier was on board, Preljocaj said the process consisted of meetings to discuss the elements; the artistic directors' vision and interpretation of the characters, the symbolism of the story, and how the various pieces would fit into -- and play off of -- the set. Leproust's minimalist backdrop is impressive in its starkness. Some parts -- the wall-mounted thrones and towering mirror in particular -- wouldn't look out of place in Roger Waters' touring production of "The Wall"; other pieces are more organic in nature, including a rock wall for a bungee-ballet number by the seven dwarfs and pods that looked like a mix of smooth-tumbled rocks, mushroom caps and beanbag chairs.

"The last part was to walk through the choreography with him." Preljocaj explained. "After that, he went away for two weeks and brought me back 200 sketches for costume ideas -- lots of different ideas for each character."

From there, the designer and the artistic director worked to winnow the choices to costumes that would instantly telegraph each character (Preljocaj notes that each of the 25 dancers has at least three costumes).

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