Damien Jalet on the ethereal and the physical in his conceptual choreography

Damien Jalet discusses his choreographic practice, its intersectionality with other artistic mediums, and the spiritual aesthetic in the dance form.

by Girinandini SinghPublished on : Apr 02, 2021

The body is foremost for the French-Belgian choreographer, Damien Jalet - the exploration of its form and anatomy, its kinetic power, movement and its presence in space and time - as the conceptual point of departure when it comes to creating a new performance. Jalet’s approach to dance is tinted with a spiritual humanism as he says, “I choose to work within the frame of contemporary dance because to me it is a medium which transcends cultural borders, making it possible for us to converse with one another, to interact cross-culturally, and to also penetrate other artistic mediums. Unlike other art forms, dance is a medium that is constantly being redefined or at least it holds the potential to be redefined subjectively, it provides for a space where you can invent your own codes."

Vessel Water Body by Yoshikazu Inoue | STIRworld
Vessel Water Body Image: Yoshikazu Inoue

Having started his career as a dancer, Jalet made his way to conceptual pieces as a choreographer often collaborating with visual artists, musicians, filmmakers, composers, and fashion designers. Dance as a medium and the stage as a platform became a space for exploration, with Jalet often working far from home or from a familiar cultural context. Dance thus became a universal language via which he related to the world, to its physical and cultural diversity, exploring the human condition, the bounds of our identity, our limits and our desire to transcend those limits. A thread of commonality connecting his entire body of work is this constant quest for transcendence, with the artist choosing to place limits upon himself, during the conceptual phase of each new piece. “I put restrictions on my dancers so that as an audience watching the performance one witnesses - at a very subconscious level - how we are always struggling and trying to overcome our limits. By restraining the body, it is possible to perceive ever so clearly the inherent human desire to grow and to find freedom,” he mentions.  

Dancers by Damien Jalet | STIRworld
Dancers Image: Courtesy of JR

While there is an obvious flavour for the sensorial in Jalet’s conceptual pieces, there is also a place for the cerebral and the abstract; the artist often plays with the notion of exterior forces as weighing upon the human experience depicted here through the relationship between the human body and gravity. Yet such forces of the natural world, which are often taken for granted in the rigmarole of the everyday take on an almost mysterious form in Jalet’s pieces, explored as cosmic forces that shapes everything from attraction to friction to fluidity. Dance here is explored as a relational force where either one chooses to resist the flow or to surrender to it, movement thus is seen as poetic, universal and relatable. The natural forces of the world, however, are not the only cosmic thematics in Jalet’s work, who often takes inspiration from the world-building of the ancient mythos, tales of rituals and legends, as an archetypal language that connects the collective across cultures. “For me,” the artist says, “performance is nothing less than a re-invented form of a collective ritual. A mode to collectively pierce a part of our common subconscious”.

Dancers on a Platform | Yoshikazu Inoue | STIRworld
Dancers on a Platform Image: Yoshikazu Inoue

In most of Jalet’s pieces, we experience the strength and the solidness of the body which is brought to life through an ephemeral choreography, making it seem as though one is watching a moving sculpture or a form of living architecture. The artist in fact often works with sculptors, bringing together the abstraction and the physicality which is common to both the mediums. The only difference is that in one medium the energy of the form is contained and in the other, it is unleashed through its own emotive capacity. When the two intersect with each other, as is in the case of Jalet’s pieces, they create an ongoing, evolving conversation with the audience where words and sentences are made up of shapes, forms, lines, and rhythm. Vessel, which plays a lot with the idea of the liminal space existing in an in-between world, is very much in line with Jalet’s larger thematic, where the stage itself is seen as a space in limbo or an intermediary between the physical world and the inner world of the imagination. 

Artist Damien Jalet | STIRworld
Artist Damien Jalet Image: Yoshikazu Inoue

Vessel is a really long project. I discovered Kohei Nawa in 2013, through Foam and immediately I knew that I wanted to collaborate, but it took a while and a lot of insistence on my part. He had never worked on performance pieces before and while the idea intrigued him it also intimidated him; I suppose. In 2015, after we completed a residency in Kyoto, our vision for the piece finally began to overlap birthing a 30-minute performance with three dancers, which is basically the second part of the actual performance you see,” says Jalet. The idea of a collaboration for the sake of collaborating wasn’t what the artist had in mind, conceptualising the piece in a short time without surpassing any limits was hardly the point of the exchange. Vessel was always to be a marriage of the two mediums of sculpture and dance and this is perhaps, where the idea of the body’s ambivalence comes from. The depiction of the body as half solid, half liquid, playing with the norms of perception and distortion through a dancer’s form and anatomy creates a physical mythology of its own. The first take of Vessel was conceptualised in a ship factory in Osaka, it was in one of the first industrial buildings constructed in Japan, and Kohei’s sculpture on which the dancers were dancing was placed on a dry platform in the centre. It was much later where the idea to flood the stage was brought into the performance, the water surrounding the dancers on a platform giving the impression of an island. The piece continued to expand with more dancers and through various re-stagings.

01 min watch Vessel Trailer by Damien Jalet| STIRworld
Vessel Trailer Video: Damien Jalet

In Vessel, we see a unique world-building achieved through a peculiar mythology. While the body and form are central to the piece, there are various associations connected to water as the cradle of life and equally so a symbol of death and passing on to the realm of the underworld. The artist delved into various Japanese creation myths such as the ‘kojiki’ similar to the human world, the ‘yomi’ which was the land of dead akin to the Christian idea of hell, and finally ‘takama-ga-hara’, the land above the clouds or heaven. As the piece progresses it takes the audience on a journey of spiritual evolution. “That is what I love about creating these pieces,” Jalet says, “It is a dream-like choreographic landscape which is rooted in an ethereal physicality”.

Vessel Stage View | Yoshikazu Inoue | STIRworld
Vessel Stage View Image: Yoshikazu Inoue

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