Hussein Chalayan

Damien Jalet: “It can make people uncomfortable, but I think that’s where art should go sometimes.”

We talk to the Olivier Award-winning choreographer about trusting your intuition, dance as the language of witchcraft, and flooding the Sadler’s Wells stage for the UK premiere of Vessel.

“I’m very bored of gender distinction, male-female duet, all these things. I’m always interested in something that can transcend.”

Damien Jalet is speaking to us from Brussels about his creative collaboration with Japanese sculptor Kohei Nawa. Blurring the lines between the human form and its environment, Vessel is a visually arresting, hypnotic and ambitious work. Seven near-naked dancers perform strange rituals on a flooded stage, their figures transforming as they morph and merge with the organic structure that floats atop 7,500 litres of water. Their faces are hidden, their headless poses concealing gender and identity and hinting at the existence of some non-human entity.

Vessel is a live performance – it premiered in Japan in 2016 and receives its UK premiere at Sadler’s Wells in April – but the artists took the fusion of their disciplines one step further and created 3D sculptures out of the dancers’ bodies, which were exhibited in Shanghai.

“The problem with dance is that it only exists in the memory of the people who experience it”, explains Damien. “It dissolves, it’s never really something concrete, it’s just a feeling that you transmit. Sculpture is the medium that’s most connected to eternity in a way. It’s the exact opposite. The fact that a performance can suddenly become a sculpture, for me it’s a way to break the spell.”

Vessel © Yoshikazu Inoue

Breaking the spell is key to much of the French-Belgian choreographer’s work. He’s an artist interested in pushing beyond the edges. Rituals and transformation are themes which occupy much of his highly-acclaimed output – from the manic compulsion to dance believed to be caused by tarantula bites which inspired Tarantiseismic, the work he created as Guest Artistic Director of National Youth Dance Company in 2017, to using dance as the language of witchcraft in the recent remake of cult horror film Suspiria, starring Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson, which Damien choreographed – and where in one particularly brutal scene, contemporary dance literally kills.

“What’s interesting is that Suspiria and Vessel happened at the same time”, explains Damien. “I literally got a call in July 2016 from Luca [Guadagnino, director of Suspiria] while I was going back to Japan to finish Vessel, and while I was finishing it I was already looking for the dancers for Suspiria, talking with Luca on the phone about different ideas, reading the script. It was a pretty busy period. It’s interesting because Suspiria, the original from [Dario] Argento, was always a reference film to me. It’s a film I’ve seen many times.”

In fact, back in 2013 Damien suggested that his dancers watch the original 1977 film as research material for a performance installation he was creating at the Louvre: Les Médusés, a female trio inspired by the myth of Medusa, which Luca Guadagnino saw. “There was no way that they could know that we watched Suspiria, so they had amazing intuition”, he reflects.

Initially, however, he was a bit skeptical. “When they told me ‘we want to do Suspiria’ and I was like, what? How would you want to do Suspiria again? Because it’s such a specific film. But then I saw the crew that Luca was running with, and talking with him I understood that it was not going to be this traditional remake but much more like a passion project, something that he viscerally wants to do. He really convinced me when he said, in the original of Suspiria dance is very much in the background and I would like to put it at the centre. Dance is actually presented as a very offensive art. And I said this is so smart because especially if you’re going to bring the whole historical period of Germany, of choreographers working at this time, many of them were considered witches, like Marie Wigman, and I feel that it’s very challenging but also super exciting to re-write the whole story of Suspiria, connecting it with the political situation of the time but also to really use dance as the language of witchcraft.”

It’s rare to see contemporary dance play such an integral role in a film, and the fact that Suspiria has sparked a new interest in dance for some people is an idea that really excites Damien.

“I’m getting a lot of feedback from people, who say that they were never really in to the medium of dance, but they found themselves liking it and being attracted by it. When I hear that it makes me really happy because I think sometimes the big media don’t trust what dance can offer. Often it’s reduced to very academic or very technical reference, which is fine, but it’s a bit reductive, and it comes back to the sense of what is the first function of dance, and it was often a way to get in to an altered state of consciousness, to get in to a parallel world, to get in contact with gods – pretty intense.”

Damien is an expert collaborator. His previous projects include collaborations with fashion designer Hussein Chalayan on Gravity Fatigue (2015), and with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and sculptor Antony Gormley on Babel(words), which won the Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production in 2010.

“I’ve learned so much from all my collaborators and I think collaboration is the only way for me to meet someone. Because it’s in the work that you meet, it’s in making things together, it’s in struggling together, it’s in all these highs and lows that a person really reveals themselves. I feel extremely lucky. I think dance has this incredible potential to be able to connect to any kind of medium. I’ve been working with theatre, with fashion, with cinema, with music and I feel that always there is a fascination from all of these mediums towards dance.”

So what does he think makes a good collaboration? “There’s one rule that I apply. Your intuition has to really feel it. It should never be something that works on paper, it should feel like something that you feel, it’s a vibration, it’s wanting to learn from the person, it’s having a deep respect for the person you’re working with, and you have to feel that the feeling is mutual. That’s what I would say is the key.”

Hussein Chalayan’s Gravity Fatigue, with choreography by Damien Jalet © Hugo Glendinning

It’s this intuition which led him to work with Kohei Nawa. Damien chanced upon the sculptor’s work at the Aichi Triennale in Nagoya, Japan, in 2013 – which he describes as a “sliding doors” moment.

“I was performing in the afternoon and I decided to go and see the exhibitions. 10 minutes before the doors were closing, I decided to go to the last floor. And I discovered an installation of Kohei’s called Foam.”

Something clicked for Damien. “I could feel there was something that Kohei was researching that I was researching too”, he explains. “First of all I was impressed by the fact that the way people were moving in this installation was somehow transforming them as performers, because as a visitor you would inhabit and become part of it. There was something done with a very strong scientific vigour and it was very precise and technical. At the same time, in an abstract way, it was somehow opening a door to a new world.”

“I really wanted to collaborate with him. I was really obsessed.” Damien eventually made contact with Kohei, and they started developing the early stages of Vessel together at a residency programme in Kyoto, where Kohei has his Sandwich art factory.

“I’m really fascinated by sculpture, and I’ve always been interested in exploring the sculptural potential of the body. When do we stop perceiving the human body as being completely human? I started experimenting with Aimilios [Arapoglou, a dancer and close artistic collaborator on Vessel] and we built up a series of figures – most of them were headless – in a way that was really challenging the perception of the body. When I sent those pictures to Kohei, that’s when I felt a really strong click.”

“I would say that we are both inspired equally by science and by mythology and I really believe that Vessel is a meeting point between those two worlds. People at the end of the show come to me and say that they will never see the human body the same way after, because it plays with anatomy, but it ultimately creates a mythology through it. I’m always keen to blur the lines. It can make people a bit uncomfortable, it can be disturbing for some, but I think that’s where art should go sometimes.”

Vessel receives its UK premiere at Sadler’s Wells on 16 – 17 April. To book, call the Ticket Office on 020 7863 8000 or book online.

Lead photo: Aimilios Arapoglou in Vessel © Yoshikazu Inoue