A fleet of trucks has been unloading rigging and set pieces this week at the Mondavi Center's Jackson Hall.
All the equipage suggests that a high-wattage rock show or high-wire circus troupe has come to town.
A closer look reveals otherwise.
The French modern dance company Ballet Preljocaj will stage "Blanche Neige." That translates as "Snow White," but this is not the gentle version of the fairy tale that most Americans have come to know.
The 26-member ballet company, founded by Albanian-born choreographer Angelin Preljocaj in 1984, puts the wicked queen at the center of this Brothers Grimm fairy tale.
The performances, scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, mark the U.S. premiere of "Blanche Neige," and they anchor a six-city tour of Preljocaj's first full-length work.
"It's a great piece for people who have not seen much contemporary dance," said longtime company dancer Sergio Diaz, via phone from Bonn, Germany, where the company was touring. Diaz performs the role of Prince Charming in the production.
"Angelin has decided to use a classical ballet structure with all these big sets, lights and costumes and combine it with something really contemporary," Diaz said.
This production is set to music by Gustav Mahler, with costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier and set design by a cinema, opera and dance designer of note, Thierry Leproust.
The sets are big, with one designed as a large mountain where dwarfs appear from caves and soar out of them on aerial rigging.
Diaz became the first American dancer in Ballet Preljocaj in 1999, when he was 18 and untested. He proved somewhat of a trailblazer with the company, which now has an international roster of dancers from as far afield as China and Brazil.
As a young dancer, Diaz was contemplating moving to New York from Paris to audition for Alvin Ailey, but when he saw his first production by Preljocaj, he knew he had found his professional home.
"It was an experience like when you get the feeling in your stomach that you know, as a dancer, that the work is for you, and that it is what you need to be doing every day," he said.
Fitting in was not as easy as he thought it would be.
"I was thrown into the work pretty quickly," Diaz said. "I think I had a month to learn the pieces. I had to look professional right away as much as the guys that had been there for years."
And fit in he did. Preljocaj was so enamored of Diaz as a dancer that he created the Prince Charming role for him. He has been dancing the role since its Paris world premiere in 2008.
"I'm trying to keep it as fun as possible," he said. "I try to renew my interpretation every time I dance, as the biggest challenge is to stay spontaneous and sparkling."
Preljocaj deeply mines the many symbols inherent in the Snow White tale, and he gets plenty of help in this endeavor. The choreographer has said that Bruno Bettelheim's "The Uses of Enchantment" was influential in the way he formed his Snow White ballet.
In "Enchantment," the famed child psychologist and writer held that dark fairy tales like this one provide a coping mechanism for children, allowing them to grapple symbolically with fears such as abandonment and death in a distant way and to prepare for the emotional challenges of adulthood.
"Blanche Neige" is compelling, said Hilary Bryant, who teaches dance at UC Davis and UC Berkeley.
"Preljocaj is extremely inventive with movement," she said. "One of the things that makes him successful is he's able to popularize movement and make it into something people can relate to."
The uniqueness of Preljocaj's work is its bold, virile choreography and the way it allows an audience to probe a work's meaning at many different levels, Bryant said.
The show is not a child-friendly retelling of Snow White. Audiences have only to look at the queen's costume a black and red number that suggests sadomasochism more than Disney to come to this conclusion. This is a queen who forces a poisoned apple down her rival's throat with a healthy dose of satisfaction.
Mondavi executive director Don Roth made the company's appearance a centerpiece of the 2011-12 season.
"We wanted to be the anchor for their tour," Roth said.
The last time Mondavi presented Ballet Preljocaj was in 1999, when the company offered dance with an abstract patina in "Les 4 Saisons," or "The Four Seasons."
Roth has been trying to get them back ever since.
"We were excited back then because we were the only presenter in Northern California to bring them out on their last tour," Roth said.
The demands of staging such a show proved a welcome challenge to Roth, especially the show's almost Cirque de Soleil-like rigging demands, which will invariably tax many aspects of Jackson Hall.
"Few shows demand the use of all the capacities we offer as a theater," he said. "I don't think we've ever had anything this big in terms of a four-day load-in since the hall opened."
What: Choreographer Angelin Preljocaj and his 26-member Ballet Preljocaj are putting a decidedly adult and avant-garde stamp on the Snow White story.
When: 7 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jackson Hall at the Mondavi Center, UC Davis
Contact: (530) 754-2787; www.MondaviArts.org
This article was modified March 16 to correct the spelling of Hilary Bryant's last name.