Envy, Betrayal and Murder: Neos Dance Theatre’s New ‘Snow White’ Ballet Traveled a Dark Road to reach its Happily Ever After

Jennifer Safonovs as Snow White in Neos Dance Theatre's "Snow White and the Magic Mirror: A Grimm Tale".  Photo by Bryce Millikin.
Jennifer Safonovs as Snow White in Neos Dance Theatre’s
“Snow White and the Magic Mirror: A Grimm Tale”. Photo by Bryce Millikin.

Neos Dance Theatre
Snow White and the Magic Mirror: A Grimm Tale
 E.J. Thomas Hall at The University of Akron
Akron, Ohio
April 19, 2014

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

As he did with Neos Dance Theatre’s 2013 production of Count…The Legend of Dracula, artistic director/choreographer Bobby Wesner turned to the original source for in coming up with the storyline for his new ballet Snow White and the Magic Mirror: A Grimm Tale. The source being the Grimm Brothers’ original tale “Little Snow White”; a dark tale of envy, betrayal and murder than the Disney version of Snow White most of us are familiar with.  Wesner’s dark, yet family-friendly ballet was a more contemporary version of either the Disney or Grimm Brothers’ storyline and took poetic license with the original storyline in several areas; most noticeably replacing the familiar dwarf characters with woodland fairies.

The ambitious production presented by Neos Dance Theatre, The University of Akron’s Dance Program, Dance Institute and School of Music along with the Kulas Concert Series at UA’s E.J. Thomas Hall, was set to an eclectic soundscape that included music by Tchaikovsky, Barber and Fritz Kreisler along with live performances by pianist Megan Denman, violinist Allison Lint, sopranos Josephine Suwanpoh and Vandi Terrill, and The University of Akron Steel Drum Band.

The two-act ballet, in line with most The Nutcracker productions on the kid-friendly scale, began with a quick recap of Snow White’s life from birth to young adulthood played out in a series of “snapshots” glimpsed in between horizontally moving set pieces that covered and revealed dancers posed in small tableaus depicting images of Snow White’s mother (Mary-Elizabeth Fenn) and father (Bobby Wesner) with her as an infant, Snow White as a young child (Arowyn Wesner) with only her father indicting the death of her mother, the introduction of Snow White’s stepmother (Brooke Wesner) and the death of her father. While the motif was effective in recapping and moving along the storyline and Jennifer Safonovs as Snow White was endearing, more needed to be done to develop empathy for her character.  Reactions to her parents’ deaths and her estrangement with her stepmother seemed glossed over.

As in the Grimm’s tale, Snow White’s stepmother became exceedingly jealous of her popularity with the local townsfolk and with her increasing beauty. Calling upon her magic mirror to declare “who in this land is the fairest of all?”, the stepmother of course finds out that it is Snow White and plots to have a local huntsman (Ethan Michael Lee) take her into the woods and murder her.

The ballet’s “magic mirror” was a marvelous film projection effect by the Emmy Award-winning Andy Gardner that lit up the stage and added to the ballet’s above average production value.

Brooke Wesner as the wicked stepmother in Neos Dance Theatre's "Snow White and the Magic Mirror: A Grimm Tale".  Photo by Bryce Millikin.
Brooke Wesner as the wicked stepmother in Neos Dance Theatre’s
“Snow White and the Magic Mirror: A Grimm Tale”. Photo by Bryce Millikin.

With a deadly combination of beauty and malevolence and costumed like singer Stevie Nicks circa 1977, Brooke Wesner all but stole the show as the wicked stepmother. Her superb dancing and acting, especially in a scene in which she takes to task the huntsman for not killing Snow White, made for a most sinister and memorable portrayal.

Highlighting the rest of Act I was a nicely performed solo by “Snow White’s Love” danced by Alec Guthrie.  Sporting a cowboy hat and an ease to his movement, Guthrie danced Wesner’s Western-infused choreography a la Agnes de Mille’s ballet Rodeo. Also of note were a tender pas de deux between Guthrie and Safonovs plus several dreamlike scenes that followed after Snow White was poisoned by hair comb given to her by her stepmother. The scenes were brighter compared to the rest of the ballet with cute woodland creatures, sprightly fairies and a Caribbean-flavored performance by the Akron Steel Drum Band.  The ballet’s finest dancing came in one in which a corps of “Woodland Fairies” costumed in white and looking like Russian tsarinas, performed a classical ballet dance in the mold of The Nutcracker’s “Snow Scene”.

Less successful in Act I were the attempts to disguise the stepmother’s identity in order to poison Snow White. That further reinforced a characterization of Snow White as a gullible young woman easily taken in, and easy distracted by shiny baubles including the bright red poisoned apple she bit into that was given to her by her stepmother to close first act.

Act II found the townsfolk and Snow White’s Love mourning Snow White’s apparent death.  A fateful kiss from her love awoke Snow White and the couple was wed.  In one final act of ill will, the wicked stepmother crashed the wedding celebrations but got her comeuppance in truly vindictive fashion by being forced to don a pair of red hot iron shoes (represented by pointe shoes) and dance herself to death. The ballet concluded with celebratory dances and a happily-ever-after vibe.

A marvelous production overall, Snow White and the Magic Mirror: A Grimm Tale could have been less dark in its approach and stage lighting.  Taking a page from the Disney playbook and lightening things up with a few more scenes like the one using the Akron Steel Drum Band, would have made for a more satisfying experience.  Wesner’s choreography was solid and the cast’s performances were respectable.

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