Madonna choreographer Damien Jalet lets headless dancers loose

Franco-Belgian choreographer and dancer Damien Jalet had Madonna sing her 1998 ballad Frozen behind a video screen of her eldest daughter Lourdes performing an interpretive dance during the Madame X tour.
Franco-Belgian choreographer and dancer Damien Jalet had Madonna sing her 1998 ballad Frozen behind a video screen of her eldest daughter Lourdes performing an interpretive dance during the Madame X tour.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PARIS • The dancers gyrate and contort their bodies into sculptures made by the human body, but which look distinctly other-worldly.

A choreographer favoured by superstars such as Madonna, Radiohead singer Thom Yorke and Florence Welch of Florence And The Machine, Damien Jalet is on a mission to reinvent perceptions of the body and make viewers question their own human identity.

In the Franco-Belgian 43-year-old's celebrated 2013 show in the Louvre museum, Les Meduses (The Astonished), dancers moved around ancient sculptures in what he describes as "sculptural choreography".

But his new show Vessel - a collaboration with Japanese visual artist Kohei Nawa and nominated in the prestigious Olivier Awards for best dance production - goes further.

It looks to find the meeting point between solid and liquid in the human body.

The nearly nude dancers play on a stage flooded with water and a white gooey substance called katakuriko, a kind of Japanese potato flour used in cooking. The gunk shape-shifts from liquid to solid, echoing the duality of materials in the body.

In Vessel - shown last week at the Chaillot national dance theatre in Paris - the dancers' heads are throughout tucked under their crossed arms and not visible to the spectator. Seemingly headless bodies move eerily to the rhythm of hypnotic music, evoking anonymous creatures from another world.

The show went ahead as scheduled, but with a reduced number of spectators due to the government's guidelines on containing the coronavirus.

"Today, the face is very important, we spend our lives taking selfies, defining ourselves. You can tell a lot about someone just from seeing their face," said Jalet.

"There's this idea that identity, the one that we normally read, disappears" when the dancer's face is obscured, he said.

"Other things emerge and the border between what is human, and what isn't, dissolves. I like asking the question of what it means that we define ourselves as human and, at the same time, there are so many things that aren't human in us."

After collaborations with Florence And The Machine for the song No Light, No Light; with film-maker Luca Guadagnino for the horror-film Suspiria (2018); and with Yorke and Paul Thomas Anderson for the Netflix short film Anima (2019), Jalet's cutting-edge work caught the eye of Madonna.

For the Madame X tour, the choreographer had the queen of pop sing her 1998 ballad Frozen behind a video screen of her eldest daughter Lourdes performing an interpretive dance.

"She's someone who has had enormous influence on the person I've become. Frozen and the pas de deux with her daughter was a way of showing her as more vulnerable, from another angle," Jalet said.

Perception is everything for the man who was first a dancer before being an assistant to the legendary Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.

"Without technology, without make-up, without costumes, only with the distortion of bodies and the way of choosing certain angles, we manage to create an elsewhere."

For the artist, the journey is not only visual, but also spiritual. He draws inspiration from rituals and traditions around the world.

Dancers defied gravity on an inclined platform in Skid, performed in Paris at the Chaillot in 2017, mirroring a Japanese ritual "ombarisha" where men are attached to an inclined tree.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 18, 2020, with the headline 'Madonna choreographer Damien Jalet lets headless dancers loose'. Print Edition | Subscribe