There are many estimable things about balletLORENT and its goals: a company committed to training young people, even children, in the art of theatre and dance movement; a company of dedicated actors/dancers, some of whom have been members for ten or more years; innovative in commissioning work from other fields within the arts – poets and actors and musicians; able to appreciate the on-going relevance of literary works like fairy tales and the eternal commentary they make on our human condition. These are reasons to admire the company and their undertaking to express through dance what is very often verbally inexpressible.

Till recent film versions, the story of Snow White has found little new expression in art forms since Walt Disney’s 1950s animation. This is a pity. A musical, opera, or ballet would do well to pick up this tale and explore its themes – particularly the knotty relationship that exists between a mother and her daughter or between any older woman and a young woman who is outstripping her with youthful energies, promise, attractiveness. There is also the problem of privilege enjoyed by some women until it becomes exploitative when power is added to that privilege. As with all fairy tales, there are innumerable themes woven together under the delightful magic of storytelling.

BalletLORENT has engaged the poet Carol Ann Duffy to re-write the Grimm Brothers’ tale. Duffy’s account is very close to the original – with two major exceptions. Instead of the dwarves who work as miners of gold ore, there are workmen of usual stature who work in the mines. The second difference is that in Duffy’s version Snow White marries the Queen’s Huntsman who had saved her life when ordered to kill her. In the original, she marries a Prince who has seen her lying “dead” in a glass and gold casket, has taken the casket, stumbles with it and in so doing dislodges the poison stuck in her throat by the apple. There is another and, I believe, very significant difference in this telling. In the original, the Queen is invited to the wedding of her daughter, arrives and is humiliated, presented with iron slippers that have been heated over a fire and, wearing them, dances herself to death.

By eliminating the seven dwarves, the tale is robbed of individuals who could have brought some distinctive element to the choreography, which in this production is rather repetitive with slides and hunched jumping over the stage floor on the part of the workmen – all in beige and emphasizing a sort of proletariat commonality. The point of the original’s “little men” in contrast to the over-weaning Queen high up in her castle is part of what the tale is showing without reducing these creatures to the lumping figures stomping about in this version. Disney went further by giving the dwarves endearing names and comical actions distinguishing one from the other: Dopey, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Grumpy, Sneezy and the boss, Doc. Which suggests that hierarchy is not just found amongst royalty.

BalletLORENT’s version in its attempt to “update” in a somewhat politically correct way, does away with the more imaginative manner in which the original tale itself condemns an hierarchy that clutches at power and through competitive envy seeks to diminish true virtue. What the updating also does is to eliminate the possibility of interesting choreography. The movement in this production is as far from ballet as one can imagine. It is movement more closely akin to schools of modern dance such as Laban. A number of the dancers have been trained at The Northern School of Contemporary Dance and the publicity for this company should have given emphasis to this school of dance rather than ballet.

Ballet’s deepest commitment is to allow dance and mimetic movements themselves to tell the story. This production’s need to have a narrator recounting the scenario with a voice-over is a measure of how little we would have understood what was happening on stage if it weren’t for the mellifluous voice of the incomparable Lindsay Duncan. I found that the actress’s delicious and professional rendering of Duffy’s script was far more magical than what I saw before my eyes. I listened to the tale rather than digesting it through the visuals.

The choreography is a series of whirling bodies, stomping feet, jumping up and down, running around, an occasional leap, an occasional arabesque, rolling around on the floor. A few moments of waltz movement occurs when Snow White first meets the Prince who mistakes her for the Queen who has sent for him, hoping he might become her second husband. He arrives, sees Snow White and thinking she is the woman he was sent for, catches her up in a lilting dance. The two swirl about together in something of a waltz, and it is very winning. To my mind that moment is the only real choreographed dance, executed by two recognizable dancers. At this point, as well, Murray Gold’s score for the production is at its most compelling.

On the whole, the music is not memorable. I had heard Snow White’s theme on In Tune (BBC Radio 3) some weeks earlier and found it enchanting. I was disappointed that this theme was lost in sound of a more sonorous, sensational nature. Film music rather than dance music.

To look at, Natalie Trewinnard is an exquisite Snow-White. She seems to have a dancer’s instinct and her movements are filled with grace and a delighted joy. She needed proper choreography to bring out her dancing talent and allow it to match her natural beauty and acting ability. Her delicacy and vigour seem spent on climbing about on pieces of scenery and swinging on ropes.

The Queen is enacted by Caroline Reece, who is suitably majestic. Her costumes do her no favour, however; and there is little dancing for her. I kept thinking how the Black Swan in Swan Lake was choreographed, and wondered if such haughtiness and evil intent might have similarly been expressed better by Reece through more intensely detailed choreography.  Gavin Coward as the Huntsman and Head Miner seemed to have the necessary talent to be given more challenging choreography. He has the body of a dancer and could have mimed his sensitivity to Snow White and his courage through explicit dance gestures and steps.

The one character who seemed to use dance as a sole means of communicating was The Mirror; and I really liked the idea of personifying this figure. Gwen Berwick demonstrated a strong dance ability but appeared infrequently and only towards the end. I would have liked her to take on more of the mirror’s role and through dance and mime show the mirror’s responses to the Queen’s question, “Who is the fairest of all”. Her dance talent was wasted by the brevity of her role.

Finally: the revolving scenic construction echoes the Disney high castle image. Lorent has placed this ascending staircase centre stage which means it overshadows the action below and seems to cramp the dancing space. When that space is filled with running children and adults, disordered crowding is the main impression. The white snow, the red apple and red blood, the ebony – these colours are entirely missing from the decor even though the production opens with a few white feathers floating down and quickly forgotten.

Susannah Harris-Wilson

11th April 2016