The Belgian choreographer talks dreaming, silent movies, and working with Paul Thomas Anderson
The first time choreographer Damien Jalet met Thom Yorke was in a gym. Not quite what you were expecting, right? “It was the kind of gym where you always had to fit between a pilates class and taekwondo class, I mean, it was just a little bit surreal,” he tells me over the phone.
The pair were introduced on the set of Luca Guadagnino’s frenetic thriller Suspiria in 2016, which the Jalet and Yorke created the dance routines and score respectively. But it was only last December, when Yorke sent an email to Jalet proposing that he choreographed some tracks on his latest album ANIMA, that the pair began to hit it off. “He came to me and said, ‘Listen, I have this new album and I have some ideas: I see workers, I see people, their bodies don’t work anymore, and their bodies are being pushed by this invisible force. I see a collective. Something that rises.’” This cryptic set of directions is, of course, what we now recognise as the Paul Thomas Anderson-directed short released on Netflix last month.
Reality is twisted in this strange dreamscape. Set on an early-morning subway train, Yorke finds himself in a dystopian, abstract world with utilitarian-looking workers who stumble and lurch their bodies with mechanical precision. Inspired by the work of Charlie Chaplin (the film itself is a homage to the silent movie era), we see Yorke’s character lean backwards and forwards against a seemingly invisible force, something that Jalet achieved by filming on a stylised, sloped surface that Thomas Anderson filmed to look level.
Jalet describes the experience of working with Yorke and Thomas Anderson as a “tango of three”. Below, the Belgian choreographer tells us how he made it all happen.
THINGS STARTED NATURALLY
Damien Jalet: Back in December, Thom came to me saying, “Listen, I have this new album and I have some ideas: I see workers, I see people, their bodies don’t work anymore and I see people being pushed by an invisible force. I see a collective, something that rises.”
He sent me one track, “Not the News”, and at the time, I was restaging a piece called “Skid” that you actually see some excerpts of when Thom is dancing in the video. I work with three dancers from my company, including Aimilios Arapoglou, who works with me on every project, and we put the music and we started to play with it. The whole thing was really intuitive.
THEY KEPT IT PRACTICAL
Damien Jalet: We had a lot of Skype sessions between Thom, Paul, and me. In fact, we weren’t physically together in the same room until the day we shot. I went with Paul to Prague to scout for locations and I was thinking of Thom everywhere, like dancing in the Metro between everyone. We analysed the music together to understand the timings, where we would shoot everything – basically, you need to be prepared because in the end we shot this really quickly, in a week, with a lot of people.
We had one day to teach the material to everyone, but it’s been done in a very spontaneous way. You work on something that was supposed to be very experimental and kind of low-budget into a mega Hollywood production in no time. It was kind of amazing to see how quickly it grew.
The funny thing with this project was that it was a kind of a tango with three, because it was all about adapting to each other. Paul and Thom already had a close relationship, and I obviously have a relationship with Thom. I met Paul in New York in February with some people like Nigel (Godrich) and Tarik (Barri).
HE LEARNED TO WATCH THOM
Damien Jalet: I always feel like there’s something bouncing in Thom’s music. His relationship to rhythm and the fact it’s so transcendent is very interesting to play with, physically. I came up with this idea of heads disconnected from bodies (inspired by the the project ‘Black Marrow’, which I created with Erna Omarsdottirso) it all felt very playful, like bodies playing with heads. It’s something that feels like there’s a disconnect so a literal choreographic interpretation of losing your head, or something pretty frantic, very quick.
THEY LOOKED TO THE CLASSICS
Damien Jalet: We wanted the first minute and a half to be quite oppressive and hyper-precise so it feels like a machine – that’s actually a word Thom constantly used, of course referencing 1984 and Metropolis.
We started chatting and all of them were talking about gravity and Charlie Chaplin, about this disconnect in silent movies that has a lot to do with gravity and falling. I started sending them some videos of improvs, other works like “Skid” I did for Gothenburg’s Company in 2017 that Thom liked.
I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of gravity, and also its relationship with consciousness, or more specifically, unconsciousness, and how that interplays with gravity. Aimilios and I were spending a lot of time in Japan, where people are really overworked, and you can really see those commuters going back home exhausted. Then there’s the moment you see them sitting and that physical moment when they lose consciousness. “Skid” was one of the ways to express that to show how this invisible force that basically shapes everything can suddenly become more visible.
THOM TURN THINGS AROUND QUICKLY
Damien Jalet: We created a ten-square-metre platform that is inclined at a 34-degree angle, so there’s no resistance – you put any object on it and it simply slides. The whole performance for “Traffic” was developed with the 34-degree angle in mind, which gives you a lot of limitations, but also creates possibilities to do things you would never be able to do on a flat surface. Paul (Thomas Anderson) actually came up with this idea to put the camera on the same angle so you actually erase the slope. But actually what you end up seeing is this weird action of gravity on the bodies that makes everything look upside down. Thom literally learned it in two hours – all the dancers were so impressed.
IT ENDED ON A HIGH
Damien Jalet: When “Dawn Chorus” comes on, everything is much more personal, more sensual, like you’re floating. We tried to keep this weird relationship to gravity and play with it so it feels like you’re entering inside a cloud, where the air becomes thicker. I was very nervous choreographing the track like, “How are we gonna manage to get into the intimacy of that song?” It’s a hair-raising feeling that’s very much about skin and fragility.
Aimilios and I went to visit Thom and Dajana in Oxford, where we spent six days developing the dance for “Dawn Chorus”. It was kind of incredible because they are in a relationship, but they were both so nervous and scared to start on the first day, but it was so great to see how playful they became. The challenge was to give them steps they’d feel comfortable doing and that’s interesting enough to fit within the narrative of the dance.