Drugs, addiction, and ballet: 'The Enchantment: 12 Dancing Princesses' at the Cowles

Categories: Dance
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Last weekend, Minnesota Dance Theatre opened The Enchantment: 12 Dancing Princesses at the Cowles Center for Dance and Performing Arts, a work that first premiered in 2006. It re-tells the Brothers Grimm fairytale as a metaphor for addiction. With strong performances, wonderful design, and lovely choreography, the main problem with the production lies with its storytelling.

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In the original story, 12 princesses awake each morning with shoes that are completely worn through. Their father, the King, offers a reward of marriage to any man who can discover what they are up to at night. However, each time a prince comes along and hangs out with the princesses, they simply drug him and leave to go dancing. Eventually a soldier, with the help of a tip from an old woman in the woods, learns to not drink from anything the princesses give to them. With the aid of the old woman's magical invisibility cloak, he follows the princesses to the place of their enchantment. He then reveals their secret to their father, breaks their enchantment, and marries the eldest daughter.

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In the MDT version, Lise Houlton uses addiction for the princesses' enchantment. The beginning image of the show initiates this theme. The princesses, wearing only body suits, are shown in silhouette, making spastic gestures as if they are in some kind of drug induced state. 

At other times in the show, their movements suggest the princesses are not in their own minds. As they escape down the stairs, dressed in red lacy outfits designed by Sonya Berlovitz, they move eerily, languidly, but also as if some force is pulling them forward. As they return, they are spent, their bodies destroyed and abused as they nearly collapse. 

Both the original story and the MDT adaptation and are equally troubling from a feminist perspective. Like many fairytales, it's a man who ultimately saves the "vulnerable" princesses from their predicament. That's not to say that Houlton's concept isn't compelling. Her choreography, in combination with Mary Montgomery's gorgeous lighting design and Devin Nee's wonderful projections, can be really stunning, especially when it veers away from ballet and into more abstract movements. 

The dancers are all wonderful, especially the women. Their tall, lanky bodies help showcase both the sweeping elegance of Houlton's choreography, as well as its contorted moments. Justin Leaf, who plays The Dreamer (a character that switches from past to present and eventually discovers the princesses' secret) gives an achingly emotional performance. 

The main challenge for the production is that is seems like it can't decide whether it's a show for children or adults. On the one hand, if you put "Princesses" in the title, you're going to get a bunch of little girls in the audience, as was the case at the Sunday matinee. On the other hand, there are adult themes in the show that, while not necessarily inappropriate (there's nothing explicitly sexual or indicating drug use except in an abstract way) is a little bit confusing for kids. The plot, certainly, is rather hard to follow in this production, and ties up a little too quickly and without any explanation. 

The most thrilling part of the production, which adds enormously to the piece, is the live orchestra, led by musical director Charles Kemper. The music, composed by Leoš Janáček and Tom Linker, is worth the price of admission itself. 

IF YOU GO:

The Enchantment: 12 Dancing Princesses
October 5-14
The Cowles Center for Dance and Performing Arts

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