By BRUCE DENNILL
Snow White: The Ballet / Joburg Ballet / Artistic Director: Iain Macdonald / The Mandela, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg
Joburg Ballet’s latest production is an original one. Though the story of Snow White (originally a Brothers Grimm folktale, though most contemporary interpretations are based on Disney’s 1937 animated film version) has been made into a ballet before, this is the debut of Iain Macdonald’s choreography to music by Dmitri Shostakovich, and it comes with new set design by Andrew Botha and beautiful, modern costumes – including mask.
This reading of the story gives the Queen plenty of stage time, including a number of substantial solos and Kitty Phetla, playing the role on the opening night, gave what might become the definitive performance of the character. Wearing a dark, sparkly fitted evening gown (slit to allow the leg movement required) rather than a traditional tutu, Phetla looked sophisticated and powerful and, when her effective acting was added to the formula, sinister to boot. Her solos contained both classical ballet and contemporary dance elements and, because they were being revealed to an audience for the first time, everything was as fresh and thrilling as it was precise.
The other major lead, entirely unsurprisingly, is Snow White herself, and Nicole Ferreira-Dill, getting the top-billing she richly deserves, presented the character as gentle and naïve, with a prodious capacity for love. As is the case with Phetla, Ferreira-Dill’s heigh precludes her from some of the premium roles in classical ballet, and the opportunity to accommodate these talented dancers without any compromise is just one of the many exciting facets of this addition to Joburg Ballet’s repertoire.
Act One is largely introductory, a scene set in the Queen’s court where the monarch and her subjects all get a chance to show off their expertise in both solos and ensemble work. Act Two is longer and more varied, beginning with Snow White in the forest to which she has fled. Her first encounter is with a group of animals – a deer, a bird, a fox and an owl. These dancers all wear masks – magnificent stylised constructions by Kelsey du Toit – and their anthropomorphic movents and brightly coloured costumes add a lively energy to their scenes. Then, of course, there are the seven dwarves, recast here – to deftly sidestep any tiresome political correctness debates – as the “Forest People”. Their personalities (and the names that reflect these) are amusing and clever. Kids will love Coma (falls asleep everywhere), Cough (is always spluttering), Cranky (permanently moody and, when played by lanky Kyle Baird, hilariously reminiscent of singer Nick Cave), Coach (the leader), Cuddles (affectionate, likes a hug), Casanova (keen on the ladies, and played with lascivious glee by Laurance James, who received the lion’s share of the laughs) and Clumsy (unsteady on his feet).
The projections used as backgrounds are occasionally distracting – the magic mirror doesn’t necessarily need four different colours of flame behind it to make it dramatic, and since when do castle pillars regularly move rather than simply holding up a roof? – but they come into their own during the scene in which the Forest People are mining underground, when the audience has the sense of being part of a scene in an animated film or similar.
If there’s once concern with the pacing of the piece, it’s in a segment of the second act when Snow White and the Forest People perform to the same musical motif for a sustained period. Otherwise, everything already feels assured, and the new production will likely be fully settled and defined by the end of this initial run.