Julien Gaillac, a balancing choreographer
"It took me many years to figure out how to deal with my physical pain. This is something that weighs a lot in a career before you do something positive with it and understand that our body is like that, that it is our guide."
Could you please introduce yourself?
My name is Julien Gaillac. I am an artistic director, a choreographer and a director.
Where are you from?
I am from a small city close to Paris, Conflans-Sainte-Honorine. My parents are not from there, but I am.
How did you discover dancing?
It's a family story. My godfather's sister, Marine Jahan, was Jennifer Beals' stunt double in Flashdance. I grew up with portraits, photographs from this movie in my godfather's living room. I saw all that… and when I was six I started dancing.
How did you get trained in this discipline?
My training was rather atypical. I started, like all children do, in neighbourhood dance schools. First in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine and then in Pontoise, at the Ann Lewis centre. Ann Lewis accompanied me for almost ten years and really pushed me forward. I abandoned my studies in high school because that was not for me. I auditioned for the Académie Internationale de la Danse in Paris, a school that offers trainee contracts. This is how I was able to start working: first with Maurice Béjart on the show L’Amour - la Danse, then with Kamel Ouali on The Sun King, the musical. I then decided to continue my training and go to the National Conservatory of Music and Dance in Lyon, from which I graduated in 2009.
In Lyon, it's more of a contemporary discipline...
Yes, there are actually two sections. In conservatories, one chooses the classical section or the contemporary section. For my part, I came from a jazz and classical dance background and I wanted to move towards what artistically appealed to me, towards contemporary dance.
You've the chance to dance alongside great choreographers... Tell us about your best experience.
The most outstanding choreographer I’ve encountered in my career is Gilles Baron. He allowed me to gain self-confidence and taught me how to let go on stage. He has a very particular writing technique: he works in instant writing with his artists. This was the first person I met who did this. These were emotionally powerful things to go through. I was lucky enough to accompany him on a show called Kings, a show for eight men. Every night was something different, he asked us never to live the same thing again. He is impressive in his philosophy as a choreographer, his philosophy of working with performers. There is this extreme precision in improvisation, and I hadn't learned that anywhere else. It was, artistically, something extremely strong for me.
Then there are others ... Kyomi Ichida and Thomas Duchatelet for example. They’re a duo. They are the heirs of Pina Bausch. They took me to Japan with them to take excerpts from Pina's Rite of Spring to schools, and also to do a production there. This period was important in my career, Japan having awakened in me a form of recognition for this philosophy of life.
And Bianca Li ?
(laughs, corrects :) Blanca Li. When I met Blanca, I had already become a choreographer and I wanted to dance again, to go back on stage. She was auditioning for her new creation. I didn't send in my resume, but I went to the audition as I was. It's funny: often the best auditions we do in our lives are the ones we didn't prepare for. And I went because I had quite a few friends going there. I said to myself, as we often say in the dance world: "A failed audition is always a free lesson". And I went through the stages one after the other. There were a lot of solo moments in front of her. When you are in auditions, there are 300-400 people: it’s quite unusual for a job interview (laughs). I will always remember her look; we had a really strong exchange.
After that, I followed her for a year on the creation of Solstice. On this occasion the Théâtre National de Chaillot accompanied Blanca. So besides working with Blanca, it was an opportunity to create something within the walls of Chaillot – which was not a bad thing, I have to admit.
How does a dancer become a choreographer?
(laughs) I don't think I have a general answer to this question. What brought me to choreography was pedagogy. I decided at one point to take my state diploma as a contemporary dance teacher. It was this diploma that led me to discover the desire to become a choreographer, or at least to register a form of language, to transmit something. For me, ultimately, doing choreography is just transmission, therefore pedagogy, in essence.
What has it changed in your bodily perceptions and in your mind?
I was a dancer for ten years: I was on the other side. Passing over to the choreographer's side allowed me to take a step back from the position of the dancer. Surprisingly, more than understanding the totality of this role as a choreographer, it allowed me to put words into my feelings as a dancer. Being a dancer brought me a lot of fun. There are a lot of choreographers who have never been dancers. One of the biggest surprises in being a choreographer has been seeing performers take pleasure in the writing or the proposals I gave them. It sparked great pride in me, which I didn't expect at all when I took this position.
Do you have heroes, in real life?
Um ... So that would mean that I have a life that's unreal? (bursts out laughing) It's a bit cheesy to say that but there are, of course, examples in my family. They are not heroes, but I am more impressed by professional paths than by figures of heroes. Or, at any rate, my heroes are self-fulfilling people, who managed to live their dreams because they were not afraid of any challenge. My parents, who come from extremely poor families, started from nothing and built themselves up. It has always impressed me a lot, and that is probably what prompted me to become an entrepreneur after my dancing career. I also think of artists… but I do not consider them as heroes.
Your best encounter?
I could quote the same people as earlier: Gilles Baron, my most beautiful human and spiritual encounter to date; and Kyomi and Thomas, those were very, very beautiful artistic encounters. There is also Isabelle Chapuis, a photographer with whom I worked. I knew of her and I really dreamed of meeting her… and had the pleasure of doing so. I am fascinated by her work: she is a girl with a pretty extraordinary aesthetic and a vision of the body, which I had never seen before.
This is a question I was asked years ago ... I had made a project, an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou and I was asked that question. My answer was a Daft Punk song that you must know, that says, "harder, better, faster, stronger" (chants). That’s the thing that came to me. It’s not a motto in itself, it’s more of a sort of ritornello that we have in mind, and which in any case expresses my state of mind. It's about working hard, working fast, working well, and trying to have real longevity.
How do you think one can recognize your dance?
Difficult question. I mostly work on commission for brands, so I adapt my language to existing identities. This is what has always been interesting about my job. Now that I take time to work on my personal writing, my dancers tell me that I include a lot of "attitudes" (a position where the dancer has one leg bent high in the air - ed.), a lot of tours and pivots ... It's difficult to qualify "self", I find, at least from where I am today. Bodily, it's ... a lot of coordination, a lot of momentum. My writing is instinctive, sensitive, the notion of pleasure is at the heart of my work. If you see me dancing maybe this is what will strike you.
What is a breathing body?
Bodies that breathe, I don’t know many. It’s something one needs to work on, and often one doesn't realize it – dancers in particular don’t. Personally, it took me years to overcome apnoea. And there are many forms of breathing. You can be very happy and breathe extremely quickly and strongly, and you can be sad and breathe very tightly. It is precisely thanks to this that one can create different languages ??in dance. A body that breathes is a body that lives!
Tell us about your routin, your daily tempo.
When I'm really responsible, I get up quite early, at 7am, after a good fifteen rings to get me out of bed. I really like working in the morning, I find it very pleasant. So usually I dive into my computer to answer my emails and try to devote a thoughtful time slot to my daily work.
Physically, having a body that has evolved both in pleasure and in pain, maintenance is necessary. I see a physiotherapist regularly, and I come back home with exercises, which allows me to keep some independence. I do a lot of sport. I love to run, I love to do cardio, I love to cycle, I love to go to the pool ... I need some pretty intense physical activity. Like many dancers, I do some weight training because it is necessary to maintain a healthy body. But I'm not one of those who lift a lot… I lift my body weight.
So there you have it: work, sport and a lot of meals too.
Who is the choreographer you admire the most?
I am going to repeat myself. When you've been a dancer, you catch more than the audience can perceive. And Gilles Baron is really a person that I admire for his work, his language, his writing, and his aesthetics because he does everything himself, everything: the scenography, the lighting, the music, the choreography, the setting, stage, and dramaturgy… I've always tried to take inspiration from him. I think it's crazy, people who can do anything.
And Blanca Li: there is an entrepreneurial dimension in her artistic reflection. It’s something that interested me a lot in my own journey. I really come from the contemporary dance world, and I went into the commercial world. I bridged these two spaces. I am quite convinced that the commercial dimension does not exist without the artistic dimension, and vice versa: the artistic dimension does not exist without the entrepreneurial dimension. Not everyone agrees with that, but that's my point of view. Also, she's a woman who works a lot with the same teams. Working with the same people over and over is interesting because one goes further. Through each project, one can deepen these relationships and go further in the choreographic language.
Would you like to tell us about other people?
Well, there's Chunky Move, an Australian contemporary dance company. They are the ones who made me perceive and understand the value of digital tools in contemporary creation.
Marina Abramović? also inspired me. I have done a lot of performances as a dancer, especially in an abstract vein. And she works on the issue of pain, a subject that is very beautiful in dance. We speak very little about it: as with many sportsmen, we must convey a positive, pleasant language… it comes from classical codes. In contemporary dance it opened up, something else was explored. But the issue of pain, in our business, is very little talked about, and that's why I got interested in her work. It took me many years to figure out how to deal with my physical pain. It’s something that weighs a lot in a career, before you do something positive with it and understand that our body is like that, that it is our guide.
Do you think that each dancer can be associated with a piece of music? What would be yours?
Wow ... I would rather say the opposite. Now, we are the ones creating it! I go through silence a lot before I can bring the music in. Or conversely, I work from the music to create a choreographic score. Things as I have always experienced them are done by meaning, never by calculation. Me, if I were a musician, I would be Pavarotti: frontal and bulky ... I don't know, I have no idea (he bursts out laughing).
And if you had to define dance as a colour, which one would you choose?
This kind of question deserves thought. It wouldn't be just one, it would be dozens ... Anyway I would tend to say that dancing is black. I don't see anything dark about it, on the contrary. I see it as the ultimate opening.
Which technical dance step do you fell most comfortable in?
The lunge is not a technical part, but it is one of the movements that I master the best, because I am very flexible. I'm lucky to be able to make very wide movements and to be able to hold them, which is not always easy. The complexity, when you are flexible, is often that it is difficult to control the movement. After that, it would be the turns.
The turns: no classic pirouette, one is always off-centre...
Yes, the pivots in particular, and the balances – I'm very good at balancing, it's all about maintaining imbalance. No doubt I have the bone strength in my feet to be able to handle this ... it's a lot of loosening, surprisingly, the balance. The more we try to hold it, the less it is present. The more we try not to hold it, the more it happens by itself. Like a turn: one uses a lot of strength to do ten turns, and in fact one just has to let it go… easy to say.
And breathe, exactly. Breathing is good.
When one is a dancer, one puts on an outfit before entering the hall. What's yours?
For me, it's all black. I often have an XL T-shirt that belongs to my partner, and I wear slightly stretchy pants. And I love long zips to let my ankles breathe.
When you create a show and a scenography for yours dancers, why is the costume important?
Clothing has always fascinated me, in its pure aesthetic sense. And as a dancer, I realized its importance in the choreography you want to convey. It’s a second skin, and there is a need for extreme comfort. At the same time, the constraint of a garment can also add sensation to the choreography. It's visual, it always meant a lot to me. I find it really important to choose very precisely the costumes that we have our dancers wear, the line that it will create in the body, because that is the image we had imagined.
I created shapeless creatures that were huge cuddly toys, because they were characters I wanted to see. Or super tight leotards to highlight the anatomy. Besides, the costume does everything for me right now. I choose to do pieces without any scenography, without any curtains on the stage: only costumes, nothing else. Clothing, basta.
Do you favour comfort or aesthetics?
Both are very important. The dancers always have a say, of course. But above all, I favour the meaning. The costume is not just an added element, which has no relation to what is being said.
What is your prohibited colour?
There is one of my collaborators who is really not going to like me to say that: purple. I've got plenty ... pink! These are colours that I really struggle with. Then again no, actually I don't have a colour that's really forbidden. It's related to what I wear or don't wear. It's true that I am, I realize, super tight in the colour panel I select for my own closet. What is perhaps more interesting is the difference between what I wear on a daily basis and what I make people who dance with me wear. I wear black and white, and I have them wear multiple colours, it's funny. But really purple is not possible (laughs).
Why did you like hollington?
I'm coming to an age where you realize that from a certain point on you wear some kind of a uniform. When I came across your Instagram, I saw Gilles Baron, the choreographer I was telling you about. The Julien of ten years ago would tell you that today I am dressed as Gilles Baron. It had really marked me because beyond being an exciting choreographer, he's also a guy who in terms of style has always really fascinated me. He always wears extraordinary clothes, and it’s impossible to know where they come from. He's going to freak out when he sees that I'm quoting him from all sides… And suddenly, when I stumbled upon the hollington Instagram, I was like, “Wow! That’s really not bad."
If hollington were to design a stage costume for yours dancers, what would it look like?
(he opens his arms wide and shows his outfit) There you go. If you had to design an outfit for me it would be this: pants-jacket, basta. Shirtless. For men and women, but the same suit for men and women. I am very inclusive in clothing; sometimes I even shop in the women’s department.
Download the lookbook hollington Fall-Winter 2020
We thank Julien Gaillac warmly for his welcome and the time he so kindly gave us!
Photos : Clément Vayssieres @clement.vayssieres