Rarely do story ballets succeed as both escapist fantasy and provocative drama; the future of the art form, however, depends on it. Michael Pink’s new Mirror Mirror, a reimagining of the Snow White fairy tale for Milwaukee Ballet, is deeply satisfying on both counts. An engrossing story that ultimately celebrates the triumph of good over evil while parodying current obsessions with vampires and ‘desperate housewives,’ Mirror Mirror delivers world-class dancing with production values worthy of Broadway.
Its dark aesthetic echoes that of Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty and Highland Fling, but with a commitment to classical dance that makes the most of this company’s robust technique. And while the astonishing scenic and costume design by Todd Edward Ivins and magical lighting effects by David Grill deserve special mention, they never overpower the choreography.
We are transported into a world that is both dream and nightmare the moment the curtain rises on Snow White’s mother (the exquisite Valerie Harmon), sitting under one of Ivins’ magnificent metal deconstructions of trees, gazing at shooting stars. A shadowy creature coiled in the branches drops the titular mirror into her lap – a sparkling fragment of star. We know instantly that Harmon is doomed.
In an indeterminate time and place blessedly free of dwarves, princes and cuddly forest animals, Pink spurns the Grimm brothers’ modeling of ideal feminine behavior and Walt Disney’s fetish for cleanliness. The radiant Nicole Teague as Snow White embodies goodness and purity of heart, but she is no shrinking violet, and certainly no slave to housework; charming and feisty, she spends her time scrambling up and down apple trees with the neighborhood boys. She loves one of them – but then, who wouldn’t fall for Alexandre Ferreira, with his poetic physique and heart-stopping allegro technique? Teague’s pas de deux with Ferreira, one in each Act, are among the loveliest moments in the ballet – by turns tender, ecstatic and yearning, without fussy ornamentation, captivating interpretations of composer Philip Feeney’s poignant score.
Snow White possesses a radar for evil that registers the malevolence of her new stepmother Claudia the instant she meets her. The role is a tour de force for the commanding Susan Gartell, who first appears as a menacing bird-like creature with a long black beak, a skeleton painted on her back, and long black fringe dripping from her hips, perched in a tree. Four faceless Demons of the Mirror attend her – Barry Molina, Marc Petrocci, Isaac Sharratt, and José Soares – slithering and slingshotting across the stage in the most unnerving manner. Gartell morphs into a temptress, with a severe Anna Wintour bob, her ingenious haute couture costume changes executed on stage with the aid of dressers in equally spooky get-ups.
We know that the marriage between the evil Claudia and Snow White’s father is damned when Ivins outfits the entire Act I wedding party in a surreal Victorian-biker-goth vogue, with eye-popping variations on the top hat for men and fascinators for women that ensure that faces remain veiled and threatening.
Gartell’s penchant for stripping to a transparent unitard that gives the illusion that her body is tattooed with bats, her pale beauty, lethal 11 o’clock extensions, and bold, undulating movements, ensnare the men in her orbit – notably, Snow White’s father (the noble Davit Hovhannisyan), boyfriend and boyfriend’s father.
The very fine Ryan Martin in the latter role becomes a hit man for Gartell, charged with rubbing out Teague, whose frequent appearances in the magic mirror become a distressing reminder of Gartell’s decaying beauty. This is only the first of three assassination attempts, and with each failure Gartell becomes more and more unhinged. The stylized gore and the outrageous, evocative designs brilliantly underscore the principal characters’ perilous journey to the edge of madness. Gartell perishes, of course, as she must, in a dramatic and satisfying fashion, but Pink keeps us on the edge of our seats right up to the end. (After all, if the Soviets were able to rewrite Swan Lake to give it a happy ending, anything is possible in ballet.)
We are thankful to be spared the sexist and classist narrative of Snow White’s resuscitation by a prince’s kiss. Pink’s men do not need the trappings of aristocracy to show off their essential nobility; they are a standout throughout, their technique bracing, clean and powerful. Pink deftly explores the nature of power relationships and modern society’s obsession with youth and beauty, while honoring the timeless notion that goodness must ultimately prevail over vanity and the hunger for power. He uses pointework as a metaphor for this conflict: Teague’s delicate, confident filigree, and the expansive, airy technique of the three white silk Doves (Annia Hidalgo, Mayara Pineiro and Luz San Miguel) who swoop in at key moments to abet her, against Gartell’s vicious, stabbing pointes.
Philip Feeney’s bold, original score occasionally gets carried away by melodrama; a little less brass seems called for. Similarly, the voodoo ceremony over the sparkling red apple as Gartell plots her final homicide attempt drags on for too long, undercutting the power of the scene. And the brandishing of black and white silk banners by the Demons and the Doves occasionally obscures the action; the choreography and the costuming are powerful enough to convey dread and triumph in those moments.
On the whole, Pink and his co-conspirators have produced a thing of spine-tingling beauty, whose quixotic glamour, visual thrills and twisted psychodrama should appeal to a wide audience, not simply to connoisseurs of ballet.