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Ballet Preljocaj’s ‘Snow White’ shines

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On the one hand, how sad it is that the jealousy and bloodthirstiness of “Snow White” still feel relevant today.

On the other, how seductive those emotions are onstage. Particularly in the gifted hands of French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, who discovered a treasury of rich physical expression in the age-old fairy tale. His “Snow White,” a two-hour work performed by Ballet Preljocaj this past weekend at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, was a lesson on the perils of our cult of youth. It was also one of the most original and immersive dance productions to arrive here in recent years.

If the financial crisis crippling Greece and Spain should hit France as well, I’d want to throw myself in front of Ballet Preljocaj’s doors at its Centre Choreographique National in Aix-en-Provence. Perish the thought of any government cutbacks there. How we’ve benefited from European largesse! Earlier in the year we swooned to Mark Morris’s luxurious “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato,” created back when Morris, working in Brussels, could tap into Belgium’s cultural coffers. “Snow White” boasted its own large-scale impact, so rare in the world of contemporary dance.

Thierry Leproust’s set design included a towering gilt-edged mirror, which loomed like a portal to hell, and an expansive rock wall upon which the seven dwarfs, swinging from wires, performed a charming aerial ballet.

Earthiness was the theme of the costumes by celebrated fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier, who conjures a world of carnal freedom where the Renaissance Festival meets the bondage club. It’s a sexy, crotch-centric place, all untidiness and tattered hemlines. The men roll their bulges at us, the women kiss them squarely on the lips and a lusciously semi-drunken waltz is akin to foreplay.

Preljocaj’s concise, direct character studies in movement were easily the match of all the textural decor. The work opens with a crack of lightning, revealing a dark, abstract set like one you’d see in a Shakespeare tragedy. A woman, heavily pregnant, staggers across the stage in evident labor pains. She’s wrapped in filmy black gauze from head to foot, like a spider’s prey; the image of entrapment continues as she writhes on the floor, finally giving birth and expiring in the same moment.

The motherless infant is Snow White, and her growth from child to marriageable young woman flashes by in a matter of moments. We’re swiftly spun into the heart of the tale, where Snow White (Virginie Caussin) demonstrates her innocence in the way she abandons herself to dancing, leading with her body, all softness and surrender. This was trust made physical. An open sense of wonder guided her, not analysis.

Patrizia Telleschi’s Queen, Snow White’s stepmother, was as hard and trussed-up in her hatred as the young heroine was liberated. A collar rose like a cage around her neck; her bodice was a network of straps. Her legs, in thigh-high boots, ought to be registered as lethal weapons. She aimed a kick at the Prince (Sergio Diaz), and you feared he’d need stitches.

For all the work’s visual punch, its most powerful moments were in the intimate exchanges between Snow White and the Prince. I haven’t seen anything new in the realm of romantic pas de deux in years, but Preljocaj’s choreography took my breath away. The shifts of tenderness between Caussin and Diaz, the innumerable ways one rebounded off the other and resistance dissolved — these formed a portrait of unnameable feeling and also worked as pure kinetic ad­ven­ture.

Yet the fine craftsmanship was undermined by a few serious flaws. The recorded music, excerpts of Mahler symphonies, often blared at an uncomfortable volume. More frustrating, why, with all the visual riches on display, was the lighting so dim? Human darkness was the theme, but that shouldn’t mean we spend the evening peering into shadows. The “Angels in America” moment, when the ghost of Snow White’s mother flies in to save her daughter from a lonely death, surely deserved celestial illumination. And a forest scene was so dark, we could hardly see the stunning bare-breasted woman who strutted through the trees wearing nothing but antlers and furry pantaloons. Very French. Very unfair to miss it.

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