As I’ve said before, I usher for UMS, the University Music Society – in this case, the university of Michigan. It’s a wonderful gig. I took it because every year before I started ushering, I’d see a year’s schedule, think, hmmm, I’d really like to see all those things, and then I would never go. As an usher, I have no excuse, and consequently I’ve attended many wonderful performances of music, dance, and theatre.
Ballet, unfortunately, is very rare here. Suzanne Farrell’s company came last year, and I twice saw an evening of pas de deux narrated by the great ballerina herself, a marvelous treat. Generally, though, the fare tends toward modern. So while it was amazing to see one of the last performances of the Merce Cunningham group earlier this year, as well as Paul Taylor last year and Mark Morris on a fairly regular basis, I still do love me some toe shoes. And not in Carrie Wears a Tutu, about which I otherwise promise to keep mum.
So to see that something called Ballet Preljocaj was coming to town to perform its version of Snow White, I pricked up my ears. Costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier? Plus. Above photo? Minus. An arabesque penché in stiletto heels can only lead to a knee as bent as the one in the photo above. I tried not to get too snarky too quick, but I had a lingering dread that what I would see would be roundly lauded by the judges on So You Think You Can Dance, a show for which I had a fascination early on and now admit was a rather dreadful lapse. We all have our moments.
Ann Arbor raved about the show in the news and in audience reaction videos online, doubtless the same folks who said, “Natalie Portman looked amazing to me” in that – oh hell, I’ve done it again. Suffice it to say, ballet lovers measure things differently. Someone leaping about in a leather corset is only as thrilling as her legs are straight. A truly straight leg is a glorious thing, and if that sentence doesn’t tell you how weird ballet fans are, nothing will.
Now the first 7 minutes, I actually felt pretty excited. A huge clash of sound, and a hugely pregnant woman – in high heels, which was just stupid, but otherwise she looked amazing in long flowing black and this cool headpiece and veil – slowly twists her way across the stage. She has the baby in a stylized and not graphic way, then dies holding it. The baby’s dad finds them both, takes the baby, disappears behind a panel and emerges with a beautiful little girl with black hair in a white dress. They dance, and it’s charming. Then another panel, and Snow White emerges, again with her dad, grown up and just as beautiful. They sit on blocks in the wall and are elevatored up.
And then – oh dear. All the “royal” ballets, in other words, the ones where royal people slum and hang out with peasants for a little while, feature extended periods where the peasants dance. In Sleeping Beauty or R&J or Gisele, there’s a purpose: It establishes the hierarchy as well as the relationship between the groundlings and the nobility. When Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev is composing, it also gives him a chance to showcase some more gorgeous music, though that’s not the case of Adam (the guy who wrote the clunky Gisele score), but….whatevs. The point is, there’s a point.
Hard to see when the ensemble choreography is so confusing. Angelin studied with Cunningham and otherwise seems to have gotten much of his experience on the fly as a performer, certainly not a bad way to work. But the pastiche of styles is a muddle, and hobbled a bit by what looks like a limited vocabulary but may just be a fondness for certain moves, including windmilling arms – beautiful but quickly predictable – and boxy shapes formed with elbows, then quickly and rhythmically slapped away. The dancers were lovely and had great feet; after all, it’s a French company and they tend to hire dancers who are lovely and have great feet.
But then there was the Evil Queen. The poor thing had to tour jeté in those dumb spike heels and she looked like a Solid Gold dancer if SM had been mainstream when Solid Gold was on TV. Accompanied by two hapless familiars, given what appeared to be fairly haphazard choreography, she spiraled the thing hopelessly downward for me.
There was some interesting legerdemain with the magic looking-glass, where the queen and familiars faced a gold frame and dancers opposite exactly mirrored them. But then there was another one of those group dances, and I bailed. Based on the images online, I probably should have stayed. But I hate being in an audience and rolling my eyes; it’s crappy and disrespectful and at that point I think it’s just better to go, especially since someone else was happy to fill my seat.
After Black Swan, which every ballet lover I know really, really didn’t like, tickets to ballets – real ones – suddenly became pretty hot. And at that point, you kind of go, hey, whatever gets them into the performance is good by me. This got them in, but not to see ballet. It’s an ongoing quandary for the person who wants to see an art form thrive: Is there any such thing as bad press? I can’t answer that. But certainly, Ballet Preljocaj adds something to the debate. The fact that I’m not quite sure what it adds hardly matters, as long as the conversation continues.