From directing Madonna's latest theatre show to doubling down on his next collaboration with Japanese artist Kohei Nawa, Damien Jalet takes 30 minutes out to utterly charm us with the story behind Vessel and his motivation to bring us back to nature.
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Damien Jalet answers our call after less than one ring. He’s puffed out and it takes him a second to click with what CityMag is, and where Adelaide is, and why we’re calling.
“Ah yes, yes,” he says between quick puffs of breath. “I’ve just got to lock up my bike and get upstairs.”
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A follow-up text message via WhatsApp arrives, Damien is seeking 10 minutes leeway.
Damien Jalet is a Belgo-French freelance choreographer whose career is currently in an exponential up-swing after working on Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 adaptation of Suspiria, the 2019 dance film Anima that stars Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, and this year – about two weeks ago – directing Madonna’s intimate theatre show Madame X.
He’s currently in Japan, back at work with long-time collaborator Kohei Nawa.
Damien’s OzAsia show Vessel was developed in Kyoto at Villa Kujoyama back in 2015 with Kohei. The show launched with just three dancers and a totally different approach to production that has allowed the work to continue to grow and develop and its authors Damien and Kohei to retain creative control.
After a quick 10 minutes Damien flicks us a text again, “ready!” and over the course of our 30 minute phone call, he proceeds to unreservedly welcome us into his mind, his philosophy and his motivation with dance and the concept at the core of his work.
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Read on for our interview with Damien Jalet.
Q&A with Damien Jalet
CityMag: You’re in Japan. For work or relaxation?
Damien Jalet: I’m here preparing a new project, also with Kohei [Vessel co-creator]. I’m excited to keep on going with our collaboration and exploring our common interest and obsession. I’ve been to Japan maybe 20 times in 15 years, I was here during the earthquake and Tsunami in 2011, but this traumatic experience has reinforced my bond with the country rather than scared me from it.
Everything is ritualised in Japan. It’s inspiring for sure. But it changed my perspective on things and influenced me a lot and in the things I’ve done. Spiritually also. There are still strong traces of animism here. This is something that’s disappeared in Europe, but animism is the first religion of everyone and I’m fascinated by this.
In Yuval Noah Harari’s novel Sapiens he writes about animism and anthropomorphism and how this religious practice was far more tolerant of difference – it included humans as part of nature.
Our myths and our relationship to the world are so important. Japan still has a great sense of nature about it, it is still very wild and, in parts, untameable. Japan for a long time isolated itself from the world, from Europe, but when it opened it changed. At the beginning of the industrial era the meaning of the word ‘nature’ changed. It changed from “jinen” to “shizen.” The first word and concept included humans as part of nature, but during the Industrial Revolution…basically the word didn’t fit anymore and had to change to a more Western concept. Nature is something that can be exploited, that we can dominate. You’re no longer it.”
Your career is punctuated by some incredible collaborations. We want to talk to you about Vessel, but perhaps you could tell us about what you’ve been working on most recently?
Madonna do you mean?
This was something personal I wanted to do. Madonna was the sparkle that made me want to start dancing at the time. I always liked her very much. Recently I’ve been receiving a lot of calls from musicians, from pop and rock artists but she came to me because she saw what I’d done in Suspiria. She wanted to create something more intimate with a theatre show. I worked on four numbers for it, including the opening. I literally spent all summer working with her on this. An artist working for 40 years, and still so passionate! Working with Madonna was, for me, like a circle touching.
Having not seen the work performed, we can see from Vessel’s promotional imagery the idea of symmetry seems to be important to the work?
Symmetry is a part of it for sure. It’s never real symmetry though, there are always differences in our human bodies between left and right.
For me, I wanted to blur the boundaries between my work and the work of visual artist Kohei. His work is very organic but uses inorganic means to make it. I find this interesting. The boundary between everything nowadays are blurring constantly.
Vessel is really about the body, but also how do you stop defining our bodies as human? We are coming out of an evolution. Limbs might be traces from a previous condition that we don’t use anymore, but can also connect us to other non-human forms.
Vessel is really a piece in-between a culture and performance. It’s a piece that challenges perception and definitely invites the audience to create associations. It’s a meditative work but also visceral. It’s basically a piece that creates a mythology out of the anatomy of the dancers.
We wanted to make people look at the human body and question the way they look at it. I do think that Vessel will question a certain sort of how we define ourselves.
I do love that for one hour people just sit and watch naked bodies. They cannot tell where the bodies are from, the faces are concealed and all the information we naturally seek – what ethnicity, what gender, is dissolved into something bigger.
There’s a bit of a disappearing of the ego in Vessel and a journey into something more mysterious. I just love to bring mystery onto the stage. We are in a time that lacks mystery, and I want to tap into what’s unconscious and not so logical. Vessel is a way for people to seek something more unconscious.