“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.”