Reviewed by Gianni Simone
When Snow White appears from the maze of boxes and wires that crowd a corner of the Tokyo Midtown basement floor she is quite a sight: rather short, plump, almond-eyed, and holding an M16 rifle. She briefly stops in front of the assembled audience; then takes position on one side of a long table set with food and drinks. Another armed Snow White arrives. She scans the area as if to check for trouble, then goes to the other side of the table. They are quickly followed by a third, then a fourth Snow White. They keep pouring in until a dozen princesses crowd around the table. Now the Banquet can begin.
Welcome to the latest installment of French choreographer Catherine Bay’s Snow White project. Born in April 2003 as a stage performance at studio 14 Paradis, Paris, Bay’s saga has gradually evolved in the last ten years, taking the small army of Snow Whites to several countries around and outside Europe. Not content of being relegated to the stage, they infiltrate the streets and occupy stores, company offices, cafes, museums, parks and shopping malls. They arrive, spread like a virus, hang around for a while, and then leave as quickly as they came.
Everywhere they go, they adopt what arguably is Snow White’s most famous look – the blue top, bright yellow long skirt, short hair (a plastic wig) and red ribbon made famous by Walt Disney. People instantly recognize them, but they soon notice that something is slightly off. Like in the 1956 science fiction movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” they don’t look quite right. What better way to emphasize Bay’s critique of contemporary mass culture.
Japan being a country obsessed with food, cooking and dining (see the Iron Chefs cult TV show) it only seems fit that this time Snow White gets to party at a table full of food, including several suspicious-looking red apples. The 12 replicants move around the table, their smooth gestures at times replaced by jerky robot-like movements. They pick up knives and forks and look at them as if they saw them for the first time. The whole performance looks like an exploration of the boundaries between dance, theatre, mime, automata and puppetry.
One by one they start eating fruits and cakes, drink red wine, even try to cut a fish but with little success. When one of them bites into an apple, you almost expect her to die on the spot, but nothing happens.
Then things start getting weird. Some of the doll-like maidens apparently get stuck in a loop, repeating the same action again and again: One of them climbs a chair shouting “kanpai!” (chin-chin!), then climbs down, another one keeps cutting through the air with a karate chop; a third one grabs a megaphone and starts screaming some kind of slogan.
The banquet turns into a party when one Snow White takes a ghetto blaster out from under the table, turns it on and begins a spastic dance, soon followed by two of her clones. In the meantime, another one climbs on top of the table to survey the scene. Little by little the overall mood turns from quirkily cute to darkly weird as the audience senses something horrible is going to happen any minute now, what with the Snow White who seems on the verge of throwing up (the apple again?), the rifle-toting guards whose expressions get grim and paranoid, and the ominous soundtrack (short radio messages – “Security! Security!” – over minimal electronic sounds) that from the beginning has accompanied the action.
In the end nothing happens. The dozen Snow Whites leave the table and disappear, one by one, into the maze from where they had come.
What Catherine Bay wants to highlight in her work is the way we relate to images. Snow White is an icon which everybody can identify with. Although Bay introduces disturbances that gradually confound our perception of the character as we know her, manipulating and subverting the accepted social codes by decontextualizing and using them in unexpected ways.
In this sense the project works best when it is taken out of the theater or the art gallery and into the streets, where the small army of dolls materializes in front of the unsuspecting passersby – like when 16 Snow Whites took the Portuguese city of Porto by storm, in October 2008, first invading its food market, then the central rail station and a monastery, all the while marching around and going through military drills.
It is exactly in such instances that people’s jaws drop and they start scratching their head trying to make sense of something that looks and feels like a dream gone bad, if not an outright nightmare.
As Bay says, “as an icon of the consumer society and a hostage to her own effigy, how can Snow White free herself from the representations that are associated with her?” Mass culture has exploited her in such a way that she has almost become a logo for consumerism. It is precisely by using this over-exposed image that Bay intends to turn it on its head and use it as a weapon of cultural terrorism.
“Snow White’s Banquet” was performed in Tokyo, Japan on March 23, 2013