Fashion provocateur Jean Paul Gaultier is no stranger to dressing dancers — after all, he laced Madonna into her cone bra in the most athletic phase of her career. Burlesque queen Dita Von Teese va-va-voomed down Gaultier’s catwalk a couple years ago in a black couture gown, intricately assembled to be swiftly disassembled for the striptease that ensued.
But Gaultier and ballet? Not even the designer himself thought that was a good fit.
“It’s not exactly my cup of tea,” said the Frenchman in a recent phone interview. “I prefer the choreography of Michael Jackson, actually — it’s more in tune with the life on the street.”
So when one of France’s top ballet directors asked Gaultier to outfit his dancers for a production of “Snow White,” well, the cast members didn’t exactly end up in tiaras and tulle. That was just fine, because the choreographer — the contemporary-minded Angelin Preljocaj — had a decidedly dark take on the fairy tale. As audiences will see when Ballet Preljocaj performs “Snow White” (“Blanche Neige”) at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater starting Friday, it is not a tutu type of ballet.
Most of the cast performs barefoot, including the mistreated young beauty of the title. Her seven dwarfs are subterranean miners who scamper up the rear wall of the stage on wires.
The wicked stepmother has the biggest role; she’s an aging seductress who is desperate to retain her sex appeal. What catnip for Gaultier! He gave her spike-heeled, thigh-high boots and a high-cut black bustier that might have come from Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour. (Accessorized, one supposes, with a Brazilian bikini wax.)
“Arrogant, sadistic, cruel” is how Gaultier describes the stepmother, speaking in enthusiastic and heavily accented English. “She has a train and a corset, with the effect of blood on the hemline. This is because in her memory, she has some blood. She is primitive, menacing.”
And Snow White? Gaultier is known for collections that draw on fetishes and decadence — bondage wear, aggressive leathers, anatomical prints that look like a body turned inside out. Is innocence in his repertoire?
To hear him speak about it, Snow White’s costume gave him the biggest challenge and the most satisfaction. Inspiration hit when he watched the dancer in rehearsal.
“There was something very tender and beautiful between her and the prince,” Gaultier says, recalling the moment with evident awe. “Sensual but beautiful and pure. I try to make an outfit that is white, innocent, in jersey, but that drapes. It’s attached with a kind of elastic you don’t see. It clings to the skin like a . . . a . . . ” he searches for the word. “Like a miracle! Like she’s wearing nothing.”
The look is part Grecian goddess, part diaper, with a train. It’s open on the sides, so Snow White bares quite a lot of skin, but the way the fabric wraps between her legs, suggesting a baby’s swaddling, is just as Gaultier described it: at once sexy and chaste.
For her, there is none of Gaultier’s customary irony. In the face of innocence, the designer set aside architecture, exquisite stitchery and any character detail whatsoever. “It’s really not a costume; it’s like it doesn’t exist,” he says. “It’s just some fabric.”
To be sure, Gaultier has designed costumes for dancers other than pop performers before, most notably for experimental French choreographer Regine Chopinot. He and Chopinot have been frequent collaborators since the 1980s —he admires how she shows “the frontier of beauty and ugliness” — and he will design for her newest work this summer at the Festival d’Avignon. (He makes an annual pilgrimage to the festival and gushes at length about its abundance of dancing, singing and “playing in the street.”)
From the point of view of construction, Gaultier says, creating for dancers is not much different than creating for mere mortals. Where his fashion collections and his dance costumes differ is in the inspiration. His dance designs must follow the choreographer’s vision, yet paradoxically, he says, this gives him a new kind of freedom.
“When I make fashion, first, it has to be wearable, has to be for the life of today, and it cannot be too expensive. . . . When I do a show like ‘Blanche Neige,’ I go into a story, which is not my story. I have to adapt myself to serve the story, and I love that. It’s very . . . enrichissant. It makes me go in a way that I didn’t think of; it opens for me some doors to go somewhere I wasn’t expecting to go.”
And so if the unsullied Snow White brought out the outrageous designer’s soft side, he gives the credit to Preljocaj. What appealed to him in this ballet is the mix of tradition and irreverence, without the self-seriousness of some contemporary dance. Those works are a turnoff, Gaultier says. “It’s too mental; it’s like an obsession of the choreographer and it doesn’t touch the public. Angelin does the balance very well.”
The French-born son of Albanian parents, Preljocaj began his dance studies in classical ballet, then veered in a modern-dance direction and ended up in New York, taking classes from Merce Cunningham. Returning to France, he founded his troupe in 1984 as a hybrid, mixing ballet and contemporary dance, and also merging narrative and abstract forms. “Snow White” is just such a blend.
Preljocaj calls his work “corporal adventures.” By this he means he relies only on the expressiveness of the body — and not on acting — to tell stories.
“Take the sequence where Snow White is thought to be dead, and the prince comes and dances with her,” says Preljocaj in an interview from his company’s headquarters in Aix-en-Provence. “I say to the dancers, ‘Don’t give me acting, but show me with the body.’ So it becomes a dance of contact improvisation and experimentation. If you put this onstage without explanation, voila, it’s about weight, energy, balance.”
In other words, abstract qualities. But in the context of the fairy tale, the scene also has emotional and narrative meaning — but without the furrowed-brow melodrama that can emerge when dancers try to act.
Preljocaj’s “Snow White,” with music by Mahler, premiered in 2008. At nearly two hours long, with no intermission, it was his first full-length story ballet, and he wanted the decor and costumes to carry a punch. (Thierry Proust, a frequent Preljocaj collaborator, created the sets.) Preljocaj turned to Gaultier after seeing one of the designer’s runway shows inspired by “The Little Mermaid” — gowns covered in fish scales, trim suggesting seaweed and nets, and, of course, conical shells for a bra.
How wonderful, thought Preljocaj, to find an avant-garde designer who’s into fairy tales!
He invited Gaultier to a rehearsal, where he told him about the ballet and the couturier took notes. A week later, Gaultier returned with about 200 designs.
Preljocaj couldn’t believe his eyes. Some of the designs were tossed, but many were kept. Gaultier retreated to his workshop. Two weeks before the ballet’s premiere, the costumes arrived.
“I thought everything was finished, that that was the last stage of design,” Preljocaj says.
Then Gaultier came to the studios for fittings. Once he saw the dancers in his costumes, he reworked every single one.
“He cut, adjusted, changed everything,” says Preljocaj, who was again flabbergasted by all the effort. “It was terrific. He is a creator who never completes his process.”
Another terrific thing about Gaultier: He did it for free. “I kept asking him to send us a bill,” Preljocaj says. “He said, ‘Yes, we’ll see, we’ll see.’ ” The bill never came.
Such generosity stunned the choreographer. (The company did pay for the fabrication of the costumes, which was not an insignificant amount.) Gaultier explains his largess simply: “Because I loved the project.”
“Jean Paul is an artist who loves the novelty of new encounters,” Preljocaj says. “That feeds him and me, too. We both came out of this extremely nourished.”
Ballet Preljocaj performs “Snow White” (“Blanche Neige”) at 8 p.m. Friday through April 1 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Tickets are $18 to $55. kennedy-center.org .