Damien Jalet
Photo by Tarek Mawad / Hube Magazine

Damien Jalet: “It’s a leap of faith”

Short Profile

Name: Damien Jalet
DOB: 17 August 1976
Place of birth: Uccle, Belgium
Occupation: Dance choreographer

Mr. Jalet, as a dance choreographer, how do you go about translating the story you want to tell into movement?

It's different for every single project. The part that I hate the most always is to start something, because at the beginning, you’re just listening to your intuitive voice. I never know exactly how a show is going to look, often I’m just discovering it a few days before the performance, and my intuition is simply guiding me. When I’m collaborating, maybe it starts from a common obsession, or sometimes I pick up where the previous project left off. Every project can be a bit of a conscious opener in that way. You get this seed of an idea or an intuition that just triggers the movements and emotions. It's always exciting to do performances, because it's always an exploration.

Are your dancers also part of this exploration process, or are you simply directing their movements?

It’s as much a collaboration with the dancers as it is with the composers or visual artists I work with. I'm hardly showing them any movements, but rather images, documents, paintings... I show them the feeling I want them to express, but it’s more that I want them to respond to the story, to bring their world into it in a way. I want them to feel that the piece is also a part of themselves. It’s a question of engagement, it’s a collective experience. I work with a dancer called Aimilios Arapoglou, we’ve worked on many projects together, and he’s kind of key for this exploration, he will often be the origin, he’ll do the first movement and then we develop the whole vocabulary from there. It’s a long conversation between myself and the dancers, I think of myself almost like a sculptor: “Do this, but slower, bring this further. Stop there, do this again, do this phrase quicker… Create the mirror of this phrase.” It’s extremely sculpted, movement by movement.

“With a performance, we’re trying to put all the elements together in such resonance that it starts to be more than the sum of its parts.”

You seem to love that sharp precision, rather than dance that’s more free-flowing, like Ohad Naharin’s Gaga style.

Indeed, I love precision. Though, I don’t know if I even have a style because I’m trying to always evolve. I create a movement vocabulary that is specific to each dance piece, a little bit like a language is connected to a country. But yes, I’m scoring it with the dancers extremely precisely, it’s like mathematics or geometry almost.  Sometimes it takes us three days to create one minute of the program. I'm there to channel all these elements together. I have the responsibility of the work and guiding everybody; I'm trying to create a coherent story, where all the elements co-exist. I’ve studied polyphony and ethnomusicology, and in polyphony, when all the voices are singing together, it can create the illusion of a voice that isn't there. It’s called the harmonic. And in a way, with a performance, we’re trying to put all the elements together in such resonance that it starts to be more than the sum of its parts.

You start to feel something almost otherworldly, like an out of body experience.

Exactly, you start feeling something that isn’t there. That’s the magic for me, the real magic of performance. The synchronicity of things, the collective consciousness, when everybody comes together to make it happen. A special example of this is my recent project with JR, Chiroptera, where we had 153 dancers up on the scaffolding outside the Opera de Paris. One of the rules we had to follow in terms of safety was that each dancer could only remain in their own section of the scaffolding, so they couldn’t see what the others were doing. But if each of them is right on with their timing, following the rhythm, if they do exactly what they need to do, feel what they need to feel… They create a sense that they are traversed by a force.They all move together. That is truly magic. That’s something bigger than us.

Rather than lots of lighting and staging details, your projects often have only a single special element that makes them incredibly unique. Skid was performed entirely on a sloped stage, while Mist had your dancers shrouded in a thick fog.

Yeah, I love minimalism! I love to be able to have a clear point of focus that I can kind of explore deeply, and that brings out even more ideas. For example with my show, Vessel, I had the idea to never show the faces of the dancers. But the more that you hide the face, the more your imagination goes wild with it, you fill in the blank of what the dancer looks like, their gender…  The more you impose these limits, the more you let the imaginations deal with these constraints. I'm trying to always invite the audience to complete the work. No show ever has one meaning, but I love to create something that transports people, that has an almost hypnotic feeling and puts them into a trance. And I can tell you, the dancers also have this experience sometimes! In Chiroptera, being isolated in the scaffolding but facing an audience of 30 thousand… That was a transformative experience for them.

The trailer for Damien Jalet and Kohei Nawa's Vessel, 2019.

You’ve also worked on several film projects, including Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, and the short film Anima in collaboration with Thom Yorke and Paul Thomas Anderson. How is it to try to create those transformative moments in front of camera?

Well, every creation is always a complex thing. But when you’re talking about performance, the magic of doing something live in front of an audience, watching it unravel at this very moment. You have a great show one night and then you have to do it again the next night, it costs you the same energy. Every night you have to try to achieve that same miracle… That gets taken away with film. There’s a loss of power because it’s not live anymore. When you start a film like Suspiria, you have already the script, you have already kind of the skeleton of the dance pieces. It takes a tremendous amount of manpower and money to make a film, there’s a lot of technical parameters. But what’s beautiful is that you create an arrow in time . That’s very rewarding. So for me, I could never only work in films, but I’m also happy to not just work in performing arts; each has its own challenge.

Film can also come in and out of vogue as well, as the current social, cultural, and political landscape changes — whereas a live dance show needs to resonate in the time that it’s performed, no?

I mean, you do need to find an idea that has a kind of radioactive potential. It should be something that you feel could grow. And you’re right about the timing, it has to be right, it’s very specific, it needs to be relevant. The moment in which it’s delivered has a strong weight. But with social media now, we can share work from the past just like with a film, I recently posted a video of something I've done 20 years ago, that at the time was considered a little bit niche. But when I posted it, it totally broke the Internet. I found that really interesting, that pulling something from the past will have this type of resonance. I didn’t expect it.

Every creative act is like a leap of faith.

Exactly. That's it for me, it's always like walking in a dark room and trying to find the light. You have no idea how it's going to look, you’re wading through the fog until it becomes clearer and clearer. I think about it like a Polaroid that starts off completely white, and then things start to appear, until it becomes like a very clear image. It’s an extremely intuitive process for me, you can’t really be rational about it until it’s done. It’s a leap of faith, for sure.