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Mondavi Center pulls out all the stops for gala

Céline Galli and Lorena O'Neill dance in the Ballet Preljocaj's production of "Blanche Neige," coming to the Mondavi Center on Saturday and Sunday, March 17-18. JC Carbonne/Courtesy photo

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From page A1 | March 11, 2012 |

‘Blanche Neige’

What: “Blanche Neige,” presented by the Ballet Preljocaj

When: 7 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Jackson Hall, Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, UC Davis

Tickets: $40-$75 general, $20-$37.50 students; www.mondaviarts.org or (530) 754-2787

Bonus: Gala champagne reception (5:30) and dinner (following the performance) prepared by celebrity chef Michael Chiarello, $1,000

It has been several years since the Mondavi Center organized a formal black-tie gala. And Saturday’s event — featuring the French company Ballet Preljocaj, performing the American premiere of its dark, sexy, fairytale-inspired “Blanche Neige” — comes as the Mondavi Center ramps up to its 10th anniversary in the fall.

It was in September 2001 that Robert and Margrit Mondavi donated $35 million to UC Davis — $10 million for the naming rights at what immediately became known as the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, which already was under construction, and $25 million for the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science.

The Mondavi Center opened in October 2002, with a gala featuring the San Francisco Symphony. The Robert Mondavi Institute, across the street from the performing arts center, broke ground in 2005 and opened in October 2008.

Saturday’s gala — which is a joint enterprise by the Mondavi Center and the Robert Mondavi Institute — will feature a combination of sumptuous food, special wine and the American premiere of the ballet.

The event starts at 5:30 p.m. with a champagne reception in the Mondavi Center’s Vanderhoef Studio Theater. At 7 p.m., the focus moves into the Mondavi Center’s Barbara K. and W. Turrentine Jackson Hall, where Ballet Preljocaj will present its performance.

A post-performance dinner will follow, with artists from Ballet Preljocaj, across the street at the Mondavi Institute. The meal will be prepared under the supervision of chef and author Michael Chiarello, whose highly rated restaurant Bottega is a Napa Valley culinary landmark.

Tickets for the gala (reception, ballet and dinner) are $1,000. A portion of the proceeds will support the Mondavi Center’s new Artistic Ventures Fund to bring major artists to Davis for extended residencies, and also support scholarships for graduate students at the Robert Mondavi Institute.

Tickets for the ballet performance, not including the other events, also are available. “Blanche Neige” performances are at 7 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $40-$75 general, $20-$37.50 for students.

Don Roth, the Mondavi Center’s executive director, and Jeremy Ganter, associate executive director, have been working on the project for several years. The idea grew out of a dinner in summer 2009 involving Roth and the French consul in San Francisco.

The Mondavi Center already had presented Ballet Preljocaj twice — in November 2002, about a month after the Mondavi Center opened, with a piece called “Helikopter,” and in April 2009 with a piece called “Les 4 Saisons.” That drew the attention of the French consul, whose duties include promoting awareness and appreciation of French artists in the Western United States.

Soon, Roth was sizing up a DVD of “Blanche Neige,” which had premiered in fall 2008 in the French city of Lyon.

“I basically fell in love with the piece,” Roth recalled, and he sent Ganter to size up actual performances of “Blanche Neige” in Europe a few months later. “I saw it two days in a row,” Ganter said. “Given the size of the financial undertaking” — the show involves about two dozen dancers, plus two truckloads of gear that would need to be sent by sea to California — “and given the fact that we were building a gala around it, the more times we could see it, the better.”

“Blanche Neige” is a full-length story ballet, created by choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, based on a fairytale by the Brothers Grimm, known in English as “Snow White.” But make no mistake, this will not be the Disney version.

As one critic in Europe noted, the character commonly known as the Wicked Stepmother — titled Queen Domina in this production — is “majestically clad in black and red with more than a few smidgens of sadomasochism surrounding her.” And she is, of course, the star of the show.

Roth agrees that “she is the sexiest Wicked Stepmother you’ll ever see.” And she wears a provocative costume designed by Jean Paul Gaultier, who created the legendary — or perhaps notorious — outfit worn by pop star Madonna on her “Blonde Ambition” tour in 1990 — the outfit with a very prominent conical bra.

The costume worn by Queen Domina in “Blanche Neige” is a bit more circumspect and regal than Madonna’s, with a spiky crown and a billowing dress, but that dress is slit high to reveal her legs, and the whole outfit implies leather and studs.

“This is a grown-up telling of the story,” Roth said. “Many parts are dark; it’s an erotic piece in some ways. It’s also 90 minutes long, without intermission, which would tax the attention span of children.”

“Blanche Neige” also features two scenes with dancers who come in on wires, much as The Metropolitan Opera’s recent “Ring” cycle featured airborne Rhinemaidens.

“Most of the circus acts we’ve presented on our Marvels Series have had some version of dancers being flown using similar types of rigging, so it’s a regular element in our seasons,” Ganter said. “But this is the first time we’ve had it as a theatrical element in a modern dance work.”

There is one scene in which a group of dancers portraying miners rappel down what appears to be a vertical rock face. There’s another scene involving the aerial descent to the stage by a regal character, which Ganter describes as “one of the most genuinely breathtaking moments in the whole piece.”

Ruth Rosenberg — the Mondavi Center’s artistic engagement coordinator, and the artistic director/choreographer of the Ruth Rosenberg Dance Ensemble in Sacramento from 1991 to 2001 — says a story ballet like “Blanche Neige” is quite different from the more abstract pieces that Ballet Preljocaj presented here in 2002 and 2009.

“The movement you are creating is in service to the story,” Rosenberg said. “The way the dancers use their bodies — gesturing with their arms, or bending at the waist — is different from the movement in an abstract piece. There has to be a lot of attention paid to the storytelling — and if you do it right, the story comes through loud and clear.”

After the American premiere at the Mondavi Center, “Blanche Neige” goes to the Los Angeles Music Center, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., then universities in Chapel Hill, N.C.; Minneapolis; and Ann Arbor, Mich., followed by dates in Mexico City, London and Seoul.

Wines by Mondavi, naturally, will be poured at the Mondavi Gala along with others by Alpha Omega, Cakebread, C.G. Di Arie, ZD, Joseph Phelps, Honig, Vellum, Hagafen and Nickel & Nickel.

The menu will include liberty duck “two ways” (roasted duck breast, duck liver mousse), crispy potato gnocchi, bruschetta with prosciutto butter and other delicacies.

Chiarello has won numerous culinary awards during the past 20 years, and also is an Emmy-winning broadcaster, the author of several books about food, and the owner of a winery.

He comes from a family with Southern Italian heritage, was born in Red Bluff, grew up in Turlock and has made the Napa Valley his headquarters for more than 20 years.

The dinner will highlight the Robert Mondavi Institute’s state-of-the-art facilities, including a teaching winery that opened in January 2011, which was awarded LEED platinum recognition, the highest environmental rating awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council. It is the first winery to be so honored.

Clare Hasler-Lewis, executive director of the Robert Mondavi Institute, said “this gala is our first joint fundraising effort (with the Mondavi Center) to celebrate what the Mondavis have done for UC Davis.”

— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or (530) 747-8055.

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