“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.