Anyone expecting Disneyfied characters in Ballet Preljocaj's version of "Snow White" ("Blanche Neige") in the Northrop Dance presentation at the Orpheum Theatre would have been in for a disappointment. And a wake-up call about fairy-tale history. Choreographer Angelin Preljocaj turned to the Grimm brothers, a much older and darker story source, to inspire his shadowy, sensuous, innovative -- and occasionally maddening -- evening of dance set to Gustav Mahler symphonies.
Ballet Preljocaj, based in Aix-en-Provence, France, is a 26-member troupe that on Friday night showed considerable strength in both the technical and visual areas. Fashion rabble-rouser Jean Paul Gaultier created the fanciful costumes, and Thierry Leproust's set design was a bit of a marvel. The dancing was quite good but not often transcendent, an exception being Virginie Caussin, who filled out the potentially one-dimensional Snow White role with soulful earthiness and unexpected power. Her unadorned naturalistic movement and flowing Grecian-style dress evoked a postmodern Isadora Duncan.
Most compelling was the psychological exploration of the wicked Queen's demonic motivation. An imposing Patrizia Telleschi, attended by two perpetually preening black cats/gargoyles (Natacha Grimaud and Émilie Lalande), could barely contain the jealous rage seething within her full Gaultier bondage gear. When she forced the poisoned apple into her stepdaughter Snow White's mouth, it was a macabre dance defined by dueling feminine icons representing good and evil.
The love story between Snow White and the Prince who saves her (Sergio Diaz) was the least interesting element of Preljocaj's work. The romantic interactions dragged in comparison to other scenes, perhaps because Caussin's Snow White seemed more capable and clever than her emotionally overwrought rescuer. The choreographer's decision to have the Prince toss around Snow White's limp body in an attempt to revive her was odd for its clearly unintended comic effect.
And then there were the seven "dwarfs" who rappelled up and down a rocky wall. Their coordinated spinning, flipping and diving made for one of the most spectacular and futuristic entrances in recent memory. But less dazzling moments resonated as well. The best example was that of dancer as a deer in a painterly forest scene. The movement was spare, mechanical and heartbreakingly anxious. This brief interlude summarized the intertwining themes of beauty and prey in the most poignant manner of all.