Alena Pešková’s Snow White: Through the eyes of children, through the heart of a mother
The first première of 2020 has been presented by the Pilsen ballet. The J K Tyl Theatre ballet company has recently received the Balet 2019 Main Award for its production of The Taming of the Shrew, choreographed by Alena Pešková. The latter is also the author of the new ballet Sněhurka (Snow White). There is no doubt the dramaturgy relies on tried and tested titles, without lowering the company‘s standards.
The artistic director of the Pilsen ballet company, Jiří Pokorný, has announced the theatre’s direct strategy is to maintain a balanced repertoire, suitable for all ages. Together with making use of several venues, each of them offering different conditions, the diversity of titles is always desirable. What is more, it is vital for keeping the audiences interested. After the educational piece A Bouquet of Czech Folktales (and its nostalgic atmosphere of the times long-gone) aimed at adolescents, and the pure classic Le Corsaire (which was meant to satisfy all academic dance lovers), the dramaturgy has focused on junior audiences this year. Luckily, there seems to be an effort to render the dance language as well as the staging more up-to-date. And inviting Alena Pešková has proved to be the most sensible choice.
The auditorium of the Small Stage (The Black Box) was full of parents with children aged 4 to 12, so we could see directly what effect the piece had on its target audience. It must be recognized, however, that in the context of similar trials (and errors), many of the choreographer‘s compromises paid off.
The first tableau opens with the love between the King and the Queen, dancers in nude bodysuits moving in waves, and with some fast breathing and a birth of a child. Adults understand, kids automatically ignore the unknown elements. But once one half of the dancers appear in white costumes and the other half in black ones, they start to ask. Using an abstract expression for the presence of good and evil may seem questionable but it remains the main leitmotif of the ballet. And obviously, the clash between the white and black „cells“ inside of us (my daughter started calling them “little souls“ in the course of the ballet) was Alena Pešková’s central inspiration and her way of ‘letting emotions dance’ within the otherwise narrative story. At the same time, it was a new layer, a reflection that parents could take from the piece, an upgrade and a shift from a traditional fairy tale to current awareness.
Still, their movement vocabulary could have been more varied and articulated, and costumes more fitting for the fairy-tale like spirit of the ballet. Casual pants and turtlenecks revealing the dancers‘ skin with their every move, do not look too supernatural. Being the moving force of the imaginary world, the characters could have been more magical and fatal, maybe even more fairytale-like. However, Aleš Valášek opted for a modern twist on a ballet costume, making it more “now” and avoiding a historicist approach towards the characters. His designs would definitely look better with bolder lights (Jakub Sloup) which would also make the ballet less dark and heavy from the beginning until the end.
The strongest scenes, however, were those featuring the evil Queen. The uniquely uncompromising Sara Aurora Antikainen brightened the stage with all forms of evil, pride, parsimony, envy and jealousy. The scenes with a half-transparent magic mirror closed inside a magic wardrobe were expressive too, though some of the narrative passages could have been longer to be better grasped by all spectators; especially the lesser-known detail of bewitching a pendant stolen from Snow White’s mother to get her appearance. The moment Snow White breaks the vow she has given to the seven dwarfs speaks for itself - she accepts a gift from a strange woman, an apple that reminds her of her own mother. We have to appreciate the lucidity of the Queen’s end, as she is engulfed by the evil she has been controlling for her own benefit.
Naturally, the seven dwarfs made for the highlight of the ballet and the audience was excited. The dwarfs were danced by the pupils of the JK Tyl Theatre ballet school. The sensitive work with child performers, with their dance and acting potential, goes beyond the common practice of including young dancers into classical ballet productions. Humour and space for defining the poetics of the story worked very well, too. The same applied to the role of the little Snow White - Viktorie Písařová’s dancing was lively and convincing. The male roles, on the contrary, remained neglected. Although they might have been suppressed by Andersen himself, it was the male hearts, enchanted by Snow White’s beauty and kindness, that saved her from death. The Prince (Gaëtan Pires) who appeared in Snow White’s dream (the leading role was performed by Charlotte Clementi), was granted enough space to dance through the moment he fell in love to saving the beautiful maiden. The role of the Hunter (Richard Ševčík), who spares Snow White and protects her from the Queen’s wrath, was absolutely underrated. Still, this character role, in which vicious intentions are overcome and placated by good will (stronger that the power of the evil stepmother) would definitely deserve more space – in music as well as in dance.
The contemporary music score by Gabriela Vermelho suits the piece perfectly. The composition, tailor-made for the ballet, inevitably determines its pace, although some scenes obviously lack dynamic twists and changes in tempo or instrumentation.
Richard Pešek Jr’s sets are simple and imaginative. A pair of contorted hands evoking a forest looks haunting. It is a shame this effect did not undergo any transformation in the final scene inside the palace – we could only believe we were out of the deep forest again, as the wedding feast was depicted using a single veil and a handful of golden glitters. The kids in the audience, emotionally drained by the ghastly tale, would deserve a stronger happy end. There is much that can be done about the closing scene – changing the scenery, using more pompous music or making the finale less static.
Despite all the reproaches, Snow White in Pilsen is a compact and coherent production which takes the fairy tale repertoire to the next level. The creators do not hesitate to use modern techniques, include current trends, add a simple challenge or a dramatic arc. The piece does not underestimate children’s delicate perception, it leads them further beyond the borders of a traditional tale and invites them to bring their own interpretations. The 60-minute duration is friendly to the youngest spectators, dance passages are not too lengthy, on the contrary, they could be more daring in terms of space and dynamics. The performances of the company members are by themselves a nice invitation for the youngest generation of theatre-goers to visit Pilsen’s house of muses.
Written from the première held on 18 January, at the Small Stage of the JK Tyl Theatre in Pilsen.
Sněhurka (Snow White)
Libretto, choreography, direction: Alena Pešková
Music score: Gabriela Vermelho
Set design: Richard Pešek jr.
Costume design: Aleš Valášek
Première: 18 January 2020
Translated by Tereza Cigánková.