This transcript is from an interview that was first published on 25th of January 2018. This transcript has been edited slightly to help with clarity, the audio of this episode and more information can be found here.
In this interview, we talk about his collaboration with Japanese visual artist Kohei Nawa. Damien created the work Vessel with Kohei Nawa. Vessel first premiered in 2016 and has been described as a lovely meeting point between dance and sculpture. The interview took place before Vessel had its Australian Premiere at Perth Festival in 2018.
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The conversation with the discussion about the weather…
Damien Jalet: I’m in Belgium, I’m at my home - it doesn't happen often this season.
Andrew: Is it cold over there at the moment?
Damien Jalet: Yeah, it's cold and grey here - I mean, it's always cold and grey. It’s kind of the specialty of the country. Especially it's very grey, like December was probably the darkest month in 18 years in this country.
Andrew: Wow, well you're going to enjoy Australia, it's very hot at this time of year.
Damien Jalet: I just cant wait. We had one hour 20 minutes of sunlight in December, just to tell you, to give you a bit of an idea.
Andrew: Well last time I was in Belgium I actually saw Bable, it was it was in 2015 and it was incredibly hot. Definitely was shorts and T-shirt weather.
Damien Jalet: It was in Brussels, right? It was when we perform in Brussels in this Hall.
Andrew: Yeah that's right-
Damien Jalet: I wasn't there but I heard about it and it's been a real sauna experiment for the dancers.
Andrew: Yeah absolutely, so when did you start dancing? Where did dancing start for you?
Damien Jalet: Oh, on the carpet of my living room because there was always every 15 minutes to impress my grandmother, but more officially, I actually started late, because I was much more drawn to theatre. In the beginning was lacking on learning choreography from some videos when I was 15. But basically I kind of really went into it when I was 19. And it turns out when I was just I was just dancing a lot in clubs and a dancer walked up to me and asked me if I wanted to be part of this project. And that's how it changed everything for me. The moment I started doing it, it just became a complete obsession and I quit everything else. And I was completely ready to change my life from one day to the other.
Andrew: What about was the appeal to you? What did it feel like?
Damien Jalet: Well I was originally drawn more to theatre, and I was kind of studying at the national school here in Brussels, and I was more keen on becoming a director, actually, at the time.
I realised that everything I was doing, like, more practically, when I was at school, always so much to do with the body. I mean, I was fascinated by the Belgian choreographers and that the world, I hadn’t realised how literal dance could be. And also I was really drawn to Grotowski’s, and suddenly I realised that what I really was looking for in theatre, didn’t so much have anything to do with words, it was much more something of the physical presence and how the body could convey so much and internalise energies for something more cathartic from your body. When I started dancing myself, I realised that it was literally what I was really looking for. It was like, somehow, the essence of everything I wanted to do theatrically, could be conveyed through the body.
So this is this is how it started. It was very impulsive, very obsessive, I really decided to quit everything from the school that I was doing. I went to New York, I studied there, I was also trying to push myself to working with different techniques that were not necessarily connected to anything theatrical. So I went to the I.N.S.A.S, everything that felt pretty far from my natural impulses. And I wanted to really expand my technique, but also my way of seeing them through the practice of it. So this came bit by bit - and it was very intuitive in a way. Everybody was telling me not to do it but somehow I was completely determined already I was like; I was just obsessed to do it.
Andrew: That's such a common experience that obsession come to movement and the feeling that it gives people. I'm not a dancer myself, but the way that dancers talk about it sounds so intoxicating…
Damien Jalet: It’s transformative in a literal way, it transforms you physically but also it makes you feel everything differently. It makes you think of the world differently and its relationship to the other differently. I mean, it's been a very profound shift for me, that I was much more into words and much more to analyze for many reasons but of course it helped me in my practice after. I have to say that for a few years I went through a really strong, very draining physical - because also my career started pretty late compared to other people around me. So it began to takeover everything in my life at the time. I remember it was something that became my main purpose. I think every dancer that started late, especially have to pass through and channel that obsessive period - it still feels that you have to get back all the time you think you've lost along the away or what people think that you’ve lost by starting late in a way, but I just know that it's been funny - because I didn't expect to become a dancer. If you would have told me that at 15 I would have never thought about that. But in a way, the way it took over and I didn't stop doing it for, like, let's say 20 years and it completely took over everything. It made me work with the people I was dreaming to work with, me going to the place I dreamt to go - but not with a tour it was more as a researcher, as a creative and as a practitioner. So it’s just a different way - also dance has been calling me to every corner of the world in the way. And it's been an incredible source of knowledge.
Andrew: What are some of the things that can be said for movement alone that can't be communicated with words? Like, in ourselves, when we compare theatre to dance, they're very similar in many respects to each other, but also very distinct.
Damien Jalet: Yeah, I mean, I really do think there is something about the embodiment of an idea that somehow in this way. I really love to work with local people, so when I work with dancers I never really show them steps, I just start from ideas. And I just love to see how those ideas are reacting to the physicality. I feel that it's always about trying to convey when I create and when I dance; I really love to see them as a place of exploration where you actually try to capture something that is not really conscious, something where you are literally a little bit like an anthropologist trying to find things that makes you realise things rationally afterwards, you know what I mean?
Like a physical experience and where something that literally expands your consciousness in a certain way. I really hate to start a piece by imagining how it could look like. I'm just trying to explore scenes where I would somehow discover things that I didn't expect. And I think that dance can really provide that. It really is an access to something that you didn't quite know, that you didn't quite understand. For example, the piece that I'm working on bringing in now in Japan, Vessel, It's been really amazing to see how the body once you push it into certain directions, especially when explore boundaries, can you perceive it? When does it cease to look human? When does it start to be connected somehow to the story of evolution? We have so many parts of the body that had function that nowadays don't serve us anymore.
You know what I mean? There is this whole thing of finding answers to these very profound questions, and I think you want to answer them well.
Andrew: So maybe you could talk about your process? How do you approach an idea or a set of ideas and making work, what's your process? I guess from the start, to developing it through movement without that idea of an end product.
Damien Jalet: Yeah, I it's a very intuitive process. So I always start from… I’m usually pretty obsessed with one idea, when I start something. I have one idea I don’t have 20, when I make a piece it's really a reflect of where I am at that moment and what I have experienced before. And for example, when I created Vessel, I discovered the work of Kohei Nawa in Japan at an arts Aichi Triennale that happened in Nagoya that I was performing there, a piece by Beckett that I had just done with a French director Arthur Nauzyciel and after the show I went to see because it was just the end of the exhibition and I discovered the work of Kohei Nawa and it was so overwhelming in the sense that he created this installation that was the 300 square meters, I think a huge black room and it was and it was entirely made of foam like black foam and the way it was created, the way it was lifted and alive in a certain way because it was constantly transforming the way people integrated with it. It was a bit of a revelation for me and I was really, I felt it was at the same time done with a scientific rigor and you had something pretty mythological about it. Also the relationship between organicity and it really said some something really essential about organicity within an organic means. It was literally soap, that was the main ingredient - something pretty chemical, and I immediately; I intuitively knew I had to work with him. I knew that we had to do something together. He's pretty popular in Japan, so it's pretty difficult to reach him. But through friends, (we were the friend in common with the composer Ryuichi Sakamoto) he really made the contact between us. I went to Japan to meet him and there was this residency that was just reopening there in Kyoto called Villa Kujoyama and I proposed to him. I said: ‘hey, I would love to work for four months in this residency and that we would do this together. This would be a way for us to explore how our practice and how it could fuse together and how we could somehow be brought into, you know, just create together something that would really be a meeting point to practice. When structure becomes dance and when dance becomes structure and when the two really become anti-social.
And there’s a lot of barriers when you do something in Japan. There’s the language barrier, for sure, but there's also structurally - things are done in a very different way. The spontaneity is a little bit like- things take time lets say. And somehow we got lucky to get this residency and he was himself very busy, but then felt that once we started to explore this potential of our common work, it immediately became a priority for him to do this together as well.
It's a project that took us nearly a year and a half to bring to the actual form that we're going to bring to Australia. So it took us a lot of time with experimentation, of talks, of working also with Japanese dancers. I would meet Aimilios Arapoglou, a Greek dancer I work a lot. He was basically the starting point, the kind of imagined dancer for this project. We worked with Kohei, we literally; we were to find this common point, this place where the two practices would fusion when we explored what was common, you know, to work. There's something incredibly physical in the work of Kohei, there is something that has to give a lot to the body already. It works also a lot for example, stuffed animals he covers with thousands of glass bulbs- its very impressive work. His work is very much also about cells about how multiplicity creates unicity, like one made by millions of little cells or pixels when we’re talking about them visually. One image made from millions of pixels to a body made up of billions of cells. And this contradiction we were talking a lot about, contradiction - and one thing in contradiction that was obsessing us was the fact that the body is solid but it also made up of more than 60% water or liquid, so there is some ambivalence also the theme of water, water being the cradle of life, but also mythology often being related to death, like the River Styx in the Greek mythology, in Japan, they have the Sanzu River, which is exactly the same - it's needed to pass from one world to the other. And so, I mean working with this contradiction of solid and liquid - he came with his material that is very similar to something you can cook with, it’s kind of a potato starch. But when you mix with water, it creates a space that is if you move it, it's solid, if you stop moving it liquefies completely. In equalising in a kind of slow motion way, like gravity. We felt we would create the bond between his work and the work that you would develop with the dancers, something that is at the same time like cement in a way between the structures and the dancers. And that's how we basically started this process with Aimilios.
We also explored the potential destructors of the body. I had done in 2016 an installation at the Louvre Museum in Paris, when I conducted 30 artists, like 22 dancers and 8 musicians. And when I was there, I was really fascinated like how sculpture is somehow the opposite of dance. Sculpture is like - they have so much in common - as sculpture is the closest form of art to eternity. Like you have in the Louvre some sculptures that are more than 13,000 years old. And dance is the most ephemeral of any arts. But both of them have to deal with energy and both of them somehow portray the body as a kind of temple of passions in a way. When you see sculptures, they seem to defy gravity. There is an energy contained to them where they are doomed to immobility. And dance is the opposite; with immobility it’s impossible to achieve dance. This contrast of those two for me was really inspiring and I felt when I did this installation; I was thinking that for two hours we create this kind of contemporary ritual where literally the dancers free the energy contained in the structures during the time of the performance. And they become kind of smugglers between the audience and the structures. So that became this process growing in me and I felt that when working, I mean, I've been working a lot with visual artists lately. I worked with Marina Abramovič and more performance artists. But I work, for example, lot with Jim Hodges an American artist. For me, his relationship with visual arts is incredibly rich and brings a limit. It brings a limit that opens a lot of new doors and working with Kohei Nawa in Japan and also spending time there I was able to explore a lot of what this country contains - not only mythology but also in rituals. I mean, I think as my work developed, it tries to be always be a meeting point between social, Performing Arts culture and also this pretty ritual aspect to it. If you dance the source of dance, you’re really there. It’s also similar to the wheel to the human and also how physically you can get to a certain, like an altered state of consciousness. How you can actually transform through movement and through some physical practice. I did this in Bali, in Bali for example, I was really fascinated how dance using us as a way to answer our relationship with god. It's a conveyor; it's you getting literally possessed by the dance. And dance is the conveyor, the body the conveyor, and always kind of an involvement in the process of what we created with Kohei. I mean I think when I was there with the Aimilios we also went in the north, in the mountains to meet, I mean, I've been really fascinated by its aesthetic practice that happens in the mountain of Tōhoku, I think Japan is very animist country still, even though those animist beliefs have been organised into a religion that is more official that is called Shinto. But basically those enemies believe they are still present in the way society is organised. And they feel there is in the north, there is still amazing practice where amongst all the emotions we practice again, which is a kind of a the belief that the mountain is the meaning. In Japan, mountains have always been considered like gods. And for centuries people were not allowed to access them. But those guys for this first ones to somehow stumble upon it. And it became the smugglers, again between the words of the gods and the word of the people. And it's developer can have a practice of ascending the mountain, the mountain in the literal way. And they consider the mountain like a mother, as a symptom that you mother and also like a grave. And this has been a tremendous influence also on the work. This idea of the mattress and the grave. But at the same time, also this evolution in the ones that line on the mountain, the ones that are making one with it. There is also for me a beauty of the body continuing the landscape and the landscape finding its continuation in the body this the sense of humility, also…
Andrew: Wow, that sounds so interesting -
Damien Jalet: Yeah, it is it is actually very, very fascinating because it was completely destroyed; it was practice that was somehow forbidden for a while. But it’s managed to survive and it's still alive today. And when I was practicing with them, we understood each other very well on the idea that indeed the body is the tool of experience. And it will be a different thing. You're putting your body on the mountain; we will make your experience from this thing every day. And it was nothing. I mean, they don't really talk about the holiness of, it's just a ritualised practice. In a way it's very, very hard. It's really tough. You work 18 hours a day on the mountain, you eat very little, you sleep very little. You have a lot of different - you do meditation on the west front waterfall… it's pretty intense. One of the leaders is 70 years old and I mean we did a film with Jordan Matthews, a director, we spent some time with them and it's been amazing to just you know that they practice something like hundred kilometers away from the Fukushima plant where, you know, where literally nature isn’t accessible to man. And still this is, somehow this, this sense of respect and humility - and this is even stronger when you realise that physically being so close from a nature that's been somehow… 22:49
Andrew: Can I ask one final question? About the importance of collaboration and how you, I guess, balance the collaboration with somebody so it is successful?
Damien Jalet: How do I manage collaboration? You mean…
Andrew: I think there's something there's something quite unique in art collaborations that the rest of society could perhaps learn from, and everyone seems to manage collaboration in quite a different way. So I was just wondering about, you know, how do you manage that in the importance of collaboration and working on something?
Damien Jalet: Yeah, that's what I really love about dance it’s the fact that unlike a painter that would be alone with their canvas, a writer along with his white page. If there is something that even though you would sign your work alone, you still work with people, you still work with dancers, you don't need to work with tools to work with humans. And that already is whether you want it or not, it's already a collaboration and I love to expand that to work with other artists, even with different choreographers. I've been collaborating a lot with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui but also with other choreographers like Erna Omarsdottir you know, I love collaboration I feel it's the most beautiful way to get out of your comfort zone. It's a way to discover, it's very good for your ego I think also because it just pushes you to mean it. Something amazing about collaboration but also something difficult you need to really give space to the other. You can't just impose what you think you have to constantly do the idea that the work is a conversation. It comes out of conversation. It’s what I love and I think this is really something you expand through, that opening to the other, like finding common ground with another artist and also, I mean that's what I love, its when you only have to collaborate with people you are really fascinated by that you feel intuitively connected to, that's very important.
I think forced collaboration just because of a name or because of a brand. I don't believe in that. I think you need to really be fascinated; you need to love the work of that other person. To feel that it's connected to something - which you need to go back together in an exploration you need to accept that you're not going to do something that's come back to what I was saying before. I don't like to start a process by knowing what it's going to be I’d rather go into processes to discover what we're going to create together and to feel there is something that becomes bigger than you. I never credited myself, like only you know when you do collaboration, you are literally so many voices, so many talents, and all this talent convey and become one work. I think you can even carry the response of each of the works, you can eventually channel these energies but you never entitled to everything. And that's a beautiful thing to realise and creation that you never going to invent it all. It's always a meeting of different energies and the cross-bond between different energy talents. And I feel in dance, when you work in dance, you're obliged to work the way you are obliged to work this way. To go into the unexpected, to let other people change you, to change the way you thinking. We’re doing this now -I’m working on a big collaboration and working with now I'm doing my first opera which is Pelléas et Mélisande, we are co signing with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui again and Marina Abramovic - she's there to when we have Iris van Herpen doing the costume. Marco Brambilla doing the video and Urs Schönebaum light. It's a lot of very powerful - I'm talking about the others - they're very powerful people, then together, it makes it different. But this was such a beauty that you always - you are in a pool together, and somehow you let the advice of the others get results. Sometimes it goes, and makes things go much quicker. Sometimes the process can get really slow because you need to keep everybody in a train in way. But there is an incredible beauty to the essential and I feel so that the collective aspect is I don't know I believe very touch in that and I believe in that dancing. I mean even though sometimes not cooperating with I'm just signing alone. The choreography still is done with a lot of other people, and I love to just always be in conversation with other people and the work unfolds
Andrew: Well thank you for being a conversation with me today. I appreciate it…
Damien Jalet: You’re very welcome and I hope that you a little bit of a hint of what we are going to bring to Australia.
Andrew: Yeah, absolutely come with. Sounds like great work and I hope you bring your shorts and T-shirt because it'll be a lot warmer in Australia.
Damien Jalet: I will, thank you.