It’s amazing the difference a missing head makes. A human form is suddenly disconcerting, menacing, inhuman. In Vessel, a collaboration between the Belgian-French choreographer and the Japanese sculptor Kohei Nawa, the seven dancers (male and female), dressed in just flesh-toned briefs, keep their heads hidden – shielding each other’s from the audience’s view, or, when apart, covering their bent heads with tightly clasped arms. Your mind reels.
At first they are just shapes in the gloom, as electronic tinnitus sounds, like wind blowing through cracks and cicadas (composed by Marihiko Hara and Ryuichi Sakamoto), enhance the eeriness of Nawa’s stage design – a strange, cloud-like shape in the semi-darkness.
The shapes coalesce into wriggling mounds of flesh. Limbs sprout, one dancer struggles to extricate himself from underneath a pile. These gelatinous masses seem to be reflected in the floor, creating more limbs; then one dancer moves with unexpected violence, sending up a spray – the whole stage is covered with a thin film of water. These bodies, too, seem less than solid.
As the dancers come together, contort, spread apart, a riot of similarities plays through your mind – facilitated by that lack of heads and faces. They are aliens, fleshy triffids, plucked chickens bobbing up and down in a row. The tableaux recall Francis Bacon paintings – and Goya in his darkest moments. The dancers, whose visceral intimacy with each other is almost intimidating, form kaleidoscopic images with their reflections, then something like a totem pole. And Yukiko Yoshimoto’s lighting design helps your mind play tricks on you; faces seem to emerge from combinations of rippling muscles and deep shadows.
Jalet has been a regular collaborator with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, winning an Olivier with him for Babel (Words), but anyone who saw Iceland Dance Company’s weird and wonderful work at the Southbank in 2017 will understand, with this piece, why it has also worked with him. By the time one of the dancers is dousing himself in dripping white foam from Nawa’s installation, as though performing some ancient rite, you’re thoroughly bewildered. But also intrigued – and quite unable to tear your eyes away.