Body shock: Suspiria’s Damien Jalet unleashes his headless dancers

The horror-film choreographer’s new show, Vessel, weaves spells with writhing limbs, menacing ritual figures and a cauldron of gloop. He explains its origins

‘A sculpture contains an energy,” says Damien Jalet. “But as a choreographer, I unleash something in the body of the dancer.” For years Jalet has combined his passions for these contrasting artforms. In his 2010 show Babel, the company danced inside five giant steel-framed cubes, designed by Antony Gormley, that were rattled, spun and stacked on stage. Three years later, in Les Médusés, Jalet’s trio of dancers cut loose in the Louvre among classical statues. “It’s the art that is closest to eternity,” he says of sculpture, drawing a comparison with the ephemeral nature of dance. “We were doing a performance that would only live in the moment.”

For his new production, Vessel, the Belgian choreographer has collaborated with visual artist Kohei Nawa. At the centre of a stage flooded with water is what looks like a lunar crater or an ice cap, emitting a chilly glow. Seven nearly nude dancers move first around and then on top of it, scraping fistfuls of a gunky white substance from the surface and dripping the goo over themselves. The landscapes of body and set slowly merge.

Watch a trailer for Vessel

Vessel’s European tour starts at La Monnaie, the grand opera house in Brussels, Jalet’s home town. Sipping mint tea in a cafe across the road, his pale blue eyes and ever-ready grin gleaming beneath a corduroy cap, Jalet says the show is “all about in-betweens”. Not just between sculpture and dance, but also solid and liquid – hence the white gloop, which turns out to be a sort of potato flour used in Japanese cooking. “When you manipulate it, it becomes solid,” he says. “If you stop, then it liquefies. You can create an avalanche in slow motion.”

Jalet and Nawa were fascinated by the fact that up to 60% of the human body is water and also explored research suggesting more than half of the cells in the body are not human. Vessel “blurs the boundaries between what is human and what is not”, partly through the dancers performing in an eye-wateringly severe pose where their faces are constantly concealed by tucking the head beneath crossed shoulders. The dancers are his heroes, he says: “What they do, I would not be able to do. I don’t have the flexibility.” Jalet has previously explored representations of the headless body in his collaboration with Erna Ómarsdóttir but this time he wanted it to be more abstract and to develop one of Babel’s themes: how to transcend gender, age and ethnicity to see what we have in common.

‘A new mythology’ … Damien Jalet.
‘A new mythology created with anatomy’ … Damien Jalet. Photograph: koen broos

This approach, says Jalet, means “you don’t identify the dancers with the categories we usually use to judge people”. One of the performers, Aimilios Arapoglou, is Greek and the other six are Japanese. The dancer Mirai Moriyama is wildly popular in Japan, says Jalet, but when his fans come to the show they are frustrated because they can’t recognise him. Twenty years separate the oldest and youngest dancers but you couldn’t tell who is who.

Without seeing the performers’ expressions, you project your own emotions. What is startling about Vessel is how easily you forget you are watching humans altogether. The dancers first appear in cluster formations, clutching each other. It is difficult to distinguish their individual forms – or even determine which limb is which – and so they exist as unified sculptures. But as the bodies gradually break away, they scuttle around the stage – the folded arms, shoulders and nape of the neck forming their own menacing face. The effect is both primordial and apocalyptic – these feel like either the first or last creatures alive. Occasionally it looks as if a bunch of frozen turkeys have broken free of the supermarket.

Vessel was inspired by ancestral rituals and the significance of mountains and water in Japanese culture. The idea was to find “a new mythology created with anatomy”, says Jalet. He had wanted to work with Nawa since seeing his dreamlike installation Foam, for which the artist created a huge, bubbling landscape from water, detergent and glycerin. “It was alive,” says Jalet. “People were wandering in it, and they became a part of it.”

A scene from Babel at Sadler’s Wells by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Damien Jalet and Antony Gormley, in 2010.
A scene from Babel at Sadler’s Wells by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Damien Jalet and Antony Gormley, in 2010. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

After the musician Ryuichi Sakamoto introduced him to Nawa, Jalet had to explain that he didn’t just want a background set for his dancers but was seeking “a common ground where we develop something together – a meeting point of our two practices”. Nawa was immersed in a series of commissions already, but after Jalet and Arapoglou created a series of different positions for the dance and sent footage to Nawa, his interest was piqued and Vessel “started to go higher in his pile of projects”.

Jalet himself is increasingly in demand, not just on stage. He has reached a huge audience choreographing music videos for Florence + the Machine (No Light, No Light) and Editors (You Don’t Know Love, in which he dances himself, performing a teeth-baring yet tender duet with Alexandra Gilbert at the feet of the band). He is proudest of his promo for Surrender by Ólöf Arnalds, in which he and the singer perform in an Icelandic forest: it brims with familiar Jalet touches such as merging bodies, the relationship between the body and a landscape and a sense of ritual and the subconscious. Jalet loves scary movies and the video has the eerie feel of a 70s horror film.

Watch a video of Les Médusés performed in the Louvre

Which brings us to his biggest project to date. When film-maker Luca Guadagnino saw footage of Les Médusés he decided that this was the choreographer he needed for his remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 chiller Suspiria, about a coven of witches in a ballet school. What Guadagnino didn’t know was that the original film was one of Jalet’s favourites and inspired the Louvre performance.

“I love the awkwardness of it,” he says of Argento’s film, “and the association of witchcraft and dance.” He began to research sculptures in the Louvre and how they depicted spells or transformations. “The sculptures are very feminine but they are all made by men. So it became about trying to break the spell of the shape they were put into,” he says, jutting out his elbows and darting his head to illustrate the point.

Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria.
Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria: the director wanted ‘dance to be the witchcraft’. Photograph: Amazon/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

Jalet and Guadagnino agreed that the remake needed to foreground dance – rather than have it as a backdrop like the original – and draw out the connection between the artform and witchcraft. There are references to pioneering, existential and often demonised female choreographers such as Mary Wigman; the ritualised sequences of Wigman’s solo Hexentanz haunt the works overseen by Madam Blanc (Tilda Swinton) at the Markos modern dance company.

Guadagnino told Jalet: “I want dance to be the witchcraft – I want it to kill.” In the film, Dakota Johnson’s moves in the studio manifest as body blows on another dancer. Jalet adapted Les Médusés for Suspiria, mapping out a double pentagram pattern for the performance, and developing his own signature themes of rituals and rebirth for the choreography. The Markos company’s Volk piece, created in 1948 and the heart of their repertory, is performed in a tangle of crimson bondage ropes. They become “this army of women”, he says. “We went for angularity, gravity, something sharp and precise.” Swinton would visit his dancers’ rehearsals to inform her portrayal of Madam Blanc.

Sculptural … Vessel. Photograph: Yoshikazu Inoue

The film was made “in an abandoned hotel on top of a mountain” in Varese, northern Italy. “It was really full-on. I think you can feel the tension in the film,” says Jalet. Things have been nonstop ever since. Jalet used to have time to create a show, present it, then create the next one. Now, it’s “back to back to back”. He is collaborating again with Suspiria composer Thom Yorke and has two more projects in the pipeline with Nawa. Meanwhile, there is an exhibition in Seoul of sculptures created from scans of the Vessel dancers in various positions.

Suspiria and the Vessel sculptures are ways, he says, for his dance creations to “infiltrate another medium” and ensure a longer life. “As a writer you leave behind a book, as a painter you leave your paintings,” he says. “To know what you leave behind as a choreographer is a question … It is ephemeral. How can we still leave traces and break the spell?”


Chris Wiegand

The GuardianTramp

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