Madonna choreographer Damien Jalet lets headless dancers loose

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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 like 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 the Japanese visual artist Kohei Nawa and nominated to the prestigious Olivier Awards for best dance production – goes even 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.

– ‘Taking selfies all our lives’ –

In “Vessel” – shown this 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,” he added.

After collaborations with Florence and the Machine for the song “No Light, No Light”, with filmmaker Luca Guadagnino for the horror-film “Suspiria”, and with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Paul Thomas Anderson for the Netflix short film “Anima”, 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.

– ‘Dissolution of gender’ –

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.”

Gender boundaries are ripped apart in “Vessel”, which Madonna herself saw in dress rehearsal on March 5.

Assigning a male or female identity to the dancers’ folded bodies and bony rib cages is a near-on impossible task.

“The traditional pas de deux between men and women doesn’t interest me at all. I like this idea of dissolution where gender is more associated with a state of mind,” said Jalet.

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 national theatre in 2017, mirroring a Japanese ritual “ombarisha” where men are attached to an inclined tree.

The artist will be back with Kohei Nawa at the Chaillot theatre in September with a new creation called “Planet”.