From Iceland — Choreographer Damien Jalet on making ‘BLÆÐI: obsidian pieces’

Choreographer Damien Jalet on making ‘BLÆÐI: obsidian pieces’

Published May 18, 2015

Choreographer Damien Jalet on making ‘BLÆÐI: obsidian pieces’
Anna Manning
Photo by
Anna Manning

This month, Iceland Dance Company will present ‘BLÆÐI: obsidian pieces’ as part of the Reykjavík Arts Festival. The show is a combination of four works by Belgian choreographer Damien Jalet, conceived both independently and with the help of collaborating choreographers Erna Ómarsdóttir and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.

Damien has done a lot of work in France, Belgium, Australia and Iceland, both as a dancer and choreographer. Much of his work is done in collaboration with other choreographers, as well as with visual artists and musicians.

As he switched gears from dancer to choreographer he started collaborating with different artists, but mainly Erna Ómarsdóttir, now the artistic director of Iceland Dance Company. “Immediately when we met each other there was a very organic artistic fusion,” he says about working with Erna.

“Transaquania” and onwards

Together, Damien and Erna created two sequential works entitled “Transaquania – Out of the Blue” and “Black Marrow,” the latter of which is set to be the headlining piece for ‘BLÆÐI: obsidian pieces’.

“Transaquania” premiered in 2009, marking arguably one of the most significant events in Icelandic contemporary dance. During the performance, both the dancers and audience were immersed in the Blue Lagoon.

“It was about creating a kind of mythology for the place,” explains Damien, describing how Iceland is full of stories connected to the landscape, but as the Blue Lagoon is a recent man-made body of water, it has no such mythology. With “Transaquania,” they attempted to create one by making the water a representation of the cradle of life out of which civilisation rises.

The motivation behind “Transaquania” is characteristic of much of Damien’s work. “Lately I’ve been really interested in combining this cultural aspect of dance to its function as contemporary ritual,” he tells me. Indeed, there is something distinctly ritualistic about his choreography—not in a ‘Rite of Spring’-esque sacrifice type of way, but rather there is something very raw and primal about his pieces.

As the piece was very well received in Iceland, Damien and Erna went on to Australia to create “Black Marrow” with the opposite concept on the opposite side of the Earth. Damien explains that Australia was the ideal choice because it is similar to Iceland in terms of treacherous nature and sparsely populated interiors, but is also the opposite when it comes to climate and the age of the landmass.

Whereas “Transaquania” is about what came before civilisation, “Black Marrow” is about the decay of it. So, in the way that the waters of the Blue Lagoon became the cradle of life for the first dance, he and Erna were interested in finding a new liquid to signify the apocalypse in the second. They decided on  oil, as it has an apocalyptic feel.  Damien goes on to tell me that they were interested in how the organic liquid is created from the remains of ancient life, how it spurred the industrial revolution and thereby rapid population growth, and how it radically changed our interaction with the environment.

A crude oil apocalypse was a particularly thought-provoking topic in Australia because of the aboriginal belief that the gods are in the landscape. “They believe that if you dig a mine to extract things you basically create a little apocalypse, or even the end of the world itself—the end of their world,” Damien explains.

He and Erna wanted to portray a sense of addiction with a strong connection to primal rites. The piece was constructed in a way that Damien calls “toxic and suffocating,” with repetitive movements and the impression of an animalistic, transformative state. It was meant to imply that the human body is somehow made of oil, and will one day become the oil of civilisations in the distant future. Like with the Blue Lagoon, the aim was to create a mythological story, this time about oil.

Damien tells me that the piece is about the dancer being constantly transformed, rather than a patronising narrative about fossil fuels. “Some people consider oil like the balm of God, and other people consider it like the shit of the devil, and I think it’s both,” he says.

Six years later…

This month, “Black Marrow” will be performed in Iceland for the first time. “We did this piece six years ago, and we were always dreaming to bring it here,” says Damien. He thinks it will be especially interesting for those who saw “Transaquania” to see the how the two pieces are both very similar and radically different.

He tells me that when Erna became the artistic director of Iceland Dance Company she called to ask if he wanted to come and readapt “Black Marrow” to show in Iceland. They have diverged from the original piece in a few ways, but were careful to remain true to their initial impulses. The biggest difference is that rather than having two theatrical roles played by actors, they have recast the piece for eight dancers, giving it a more physical emphasis.

“We wanted to be careful in ‘Black Marrow’ to keep the essence of why we created it originally,” says Damien, describing how it is difficult to resist the tendency to change and update old works, rather than to adapt them for a new environment. At the same time, as Damien puts it, it shouldn’t look like the dancers are wearing someone else’s clothes.

Additionally, Erna asked him to present three other short works. First, there will be a trio called “Les Médusés,” originally performed in the courtyard of the Louvre Museum, where dancers are constantly being frozen into statues as if petrified by Medusa’s gaze. The second two are from ‘Babel(words)’, a collaboration Damien did with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: one is a visceral and animalistic duet about the primal differentiation between men and women, and the other is a repetitive and spiritual piece inspired by the Sufi ritual of dhikr.

Unfortunately, Damien had already committed to a residency programme in Japan before Erna approached him about ‘BLÆÐI: obsidian pieces’, so he is missing the last four weeks of rehearsals before the premiere. However, he indicates no anxieties about leaving before opening night, and tells me the whole show would be blocked for the stage before he leaves—an astounding feat, considering it is not uncommon for choreographers to continue tweaking their work up until the day before opening. “But I feel terrible,” he adds, looking disappointed, “I’m not going to see the show.”

‘Obsidian Pieces’

Damien tells me he chose the title ‘Obsidian Pieces’ because like the stone—commonly found in Iceland—the pieces are “dark and reflective.” This is certainly true, but I would add that they are also entertaining and accessible. Rather than making modern dance even more difficult to appreciate by adding obscure motivations and conceptions on top of an art form not known for widespread popularity, Damien’s work tells a story that can be enjoyed by both the life-long dance enthusiast and his reluctant date.

BLÆÐI: obsidian pieces
May 19, 25, 28 at 20:00

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