From the primordial darkness, inhuman shapes begin to shift as slow eerie sounds begin to build. This is Vessel’s first touch down at Sadler’s Wells, the collaboration between Japanese artist Kohei Nawa and French/Belgian choreographer Damien Jalet. If you lack the funds or a giant telescope to scan for alien life, Vessel is the answer as we peer into worlds far from our own.
As with any journey, there are bumps on this intergalactic ride: small bumps, more like turbulence. There are sections of the show that grow to a dramatic climax with pace and stately grace and then there are sections that just don’t work as well. A restless audience at points loses interests in sequences where the repetitive movements seem not to be leading anywhere but merely to be filling time. Although these are few and far between, for those among you with the attention span of a springer spaniel this might not be the experimental dance/sculpture collaborative project for you.
For those more focused individuals this show is otherworldly. The synergistic process is at its best between the two titans of their fields. Jalet’s 2018 work with Luca Guadagnino, Suspiria, has cemented his clear artistic vision. Meeting Nawa in residency in Kyoto the professor and artist’s extensive experience within the international art world has paid dividends in the form of Vessel. Nawa’s interest in form and texture works perfectly within Jalet’s expressive and ground-breaking choreography. This exploration into life, death and humanity truly makes us question the creatures on stage, constantly having to remind ourselves that we are watching dancers in a theatre in Islington. We are utterly transported to another world and in this soup of amoebas and soft corals, we drift in awe. The obscuring of the dancers’ heads mixed with some very atmospheric lighting creates an insular world I can imagine clustered around a hydrothermal vent in the Mariana Trench. This show is not without humor as the audience are allowed the space to laugh, especially in the group scenes amongst the intense and gradual experience.
The set is minimal but effective; a large mound of white almost crystalline structures is surrounded by life-giving waters. This produces dancing reflections that fit perfectly with the creation narrative that is playing out. I do question the originality of flooding the stage in a dance piece but that is rather the critic’s prerogative. Clever use of a silicon-based goo allows for even more ravishing play with the dancers contorted forms. Sexual and visual connotations fly around the theatre with lives of their own as the dancers writhe in a glistening, ever-changing pattern. Marihiko Hara’s music is a beautiful experimental flowing soundscape like a dawn chorus on Jupiter.
Everything within this piece is dependent on everything else and serves as proof of the best elements of a cross-genre cooperative process. This process creates a very strong piece of experimental dance, with a real openness to interpretation. From my own perspective, I see another planet, the birth of humanity and the slow growth of organic life forms. Someone else might see something completely different, but that’s the charm. As the final act finishes and the only erect human form begins to sink in a white gelatinous quicksand, the only truth is we are witnessing something unique, ephemeral and utterly special.
Vessel played Sadlers Wells until 17 April. For more information, see the Sadler’s Wells website.