The international premiere of Vessel by French-based choreographer Damien Jalet and Japanese sculptor Kohei Nawa attracted a large and curious audience to the State Theatre Centre. The fusion of dance and installation was unlike anything else in the Perth Festival program. By the end of the performance I was convinced it was unlike anything else in the world.
Jalet and Nawa drew inspiration from the Japanese ‘Yomi’ or world of the dead and the Buddhist concept of life returning to the earth in death. A white clay substance, part liquid, part solid (just like the human body) was also central to the collaboration. The slow-paced sixty minute work involved seven dancers moving across a water-covered stage with a crater of bubbling white clay in the centre. The stage acted as a kind of vessel holding water, land and the life cycle.
The dancers began in the water as lumps of rock, dimly lit and accompanied by subliminal rumblings from Marihiko Hara and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s electronic score. As the soundworld became more industrial the feet and torso of a body emerged, born into the water and wriggling like a worm. More near-naked bodies emerged, all headless.
For the majority of the work the dancers obscured their heads with their arms and bent torsos. Their faceless bodies, emancipated from gender, age and ethnicity had a heightened abstraction and took on a range of non-human entities. In clusters or alone the dancers – like lumps of clay looking for a soul – became insects, birds, roaring lions or clumps of sea anemones with tendrils opening and shrinking in symmetry.
Under Jalet’s choreography bodies rippled and poured with the fluidity of clay. The influence of Noh Theatre was apparent in the micro-movements of hands or shoulders. An abstract entanglement of limbs and morbidly fascinating contortions that were utterly entrancing.
Yukiko Yoshimoto’s lighting used spotlights to focus the attention and create deep shadows from the contours of limbs. The water was a shining black mirror reflecting the white crater and brown clay-like bodies. The incremental build and release of the sound design completed the experience: a complete integration of sound, movement and sculpture.
At one stage clumps of bodies used legs and arms to create giant lips, a gaping clitoris or was it waving tendrils of seaweed? Another sequence drew laughs from the audience as two-legged headless birds bobbed, bumped and splashed playfully to percussive pentatonic rhythms. It demanded flexibility and intimacy from the dancers who worked with breathtaking control and vulnerability.
It wasn’t until the final moments that a head was revealed, smeared in dripping clay. The dancer sank into the pit, enshrouded in a cloud of smoke. Slow breathing waves of sound subsided; the cycle of life was complete. It was a uniquely compelling coalescence of artforms that will be imprinted in my mind for years to come.
Vessel continues until 4th March at the State Theatre Centre.