Underwater Artist Julie Gautier on Finding the Soul of Dance in Mexico's Cenotes
Home, in the physical sense, is Nice, France. Gautier’s toned muscles and lightly bronzed skin hint at her time spent outdoors here, while her slender frame and elegant movements hint at her dance training. But this petite 38-year-old woman is also a high-performing athlete. How does she describe her work?
“I am an underwater … ,” Gautier pauses for a moment of self-reflection. “Am I good enough to be called an artist?” She prefers to say “dancer.” But a single word doesn’t fully encapsulate all she’s accomplished. Gautier is also an underwater cinematographer, film director and author. And, of course, a free diver.
The difficulty, Gautier says, has always been how to bundle her talents into one meaningful outlet. Her journey from her native French island of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean to her work on the cenotes project in the Yucatan peninsula as part of the Marriott StoryBooked documentary series was filled with ups and downs.
“I had wanted to dance in the cenotes for a very long time, and this experience transformed me,” explains Gautier. “During this dive, I met my inner movement. I, who never danced improv on land, started dancing in front of the camera.”
If today she is a happy, fulfilled, creative woman and accomplished underwater artist, she owes it to her ability to constantly question herself and her calling in life, as well as to a keen observation of the world around her.
“Travel, encounters and projects enrich life and nourish the imagination,” Gautier says.
Gautier’s story begins on the French island of La Réunion, east of Madagascar and southwest of Mauritius. Blue waters lap at pristine white beaches studded with palm trees, and thick luscious forests teem with wildlife — this is the idyllic corner of paradise where Julie Gautier was born in 1979 into a mixed French-Réunion and Vietnamese family. Her father was a spearfisher, her mother a dance teacher.
When she talks about her roots, her eyes light up. A happy, carefree childhood spent diving and taking dance classes would set the tone for her future. Surrounded by nature, life was simple and good.
After taking up free diving as a sport in her teens, she participated in the 2000 world championship in Nice, France, and later set several French records.
Today she is considered one of the 10 best women worldwide in her discipline, with several free-diving records to her name, and is able to hold her breath underwater for up to 10 minutes.
When I am underwater, something happens. I just have this ability to connect with water.
But for all her interest and success in free diving, Julie did not enjoy competitions. She stayed in the sport while struggling to find a purpose in life. Her two passions, for free diving and for dance, seemed unbridgeable opposites.
A 2005 collaboration with Canadian photographer Gregory Colbert, for whom she worked as an underwater model, inspired her to find ways to combine diving and dancing.
“I am not a good dancer on land, but when I am underwater, something happens. I just have this ability to connect with water,” she says.
She also realized her hunger for travel. The world’s diversity in all its richness and beauty spoke to her, and she wanted to integrate it into her life, soak it up, grow from it and challenge herself to bigger and better things.
Interacting with the world through dance
This desire to travel became a reality in the mid 2000s when Julie moved to Nice, France. Her now husband, Guillaume Néry, a Niçois native, is a world-record-holding free diver and photographer, and Julie seamlessly adapted to his globetrotting lifestyle.
It’s a little-known — and perhaps unexpected — fact that modern free diving has its roots in this Mediterranean port city. Nice’s unique location between the sea and mountains, along with its colorful history and vibrant urban life just minutes from rural pastures, gives the town a unique flair.
This microcosm of life at the nexus of different cultures proved to be the perfect home base from which the couple could roam the world from competition to competition.
Still, Gautier hadn’t quite found her own calling in life. Then, one day, Guillaume put a camera in her hand. “Let’s make a movie together. You film me while I dive,” she recalls him saying.
“I had never operated a video camera before, much less made a movie. But off we went to the Bahamas to shoot a video in the legendary Dean’s Blue Hole, [at] 663 feet, the world’s largest underwater sinkhole.”
The resulting short film, “Free Fall,” shows Guillaume walking underwater toward the lip of the sinkhole’s crevice before diving into the dark abyss.
Combining the thrill of the Big Blue with an aesthetic feast for the senses, the video went viral overnight and now has more than 27 million views.
“I was surprised how much I enjoyed this kind of work and knew I was finally headed in the right direction,” Gautier says, her smile widening.
In the years that followed, the couple has produced and filmed several more underwater films, which became great successes on social media and reached millions of viewers, including her award-winning short film, “Ama,” a poetic underwater ballet, which she dedicated to strong women everywhere.
While Gautier usually draws her artistic inspiration from outside sources — places, people, encounters, sounds or travel — “Ama” is a deeply personal work based on her own experiences along her life path.
As the role of filmmaker became one she embraced, something in her mind clicked. “What if I could not only be behind the camera, but in front of it? What if I could show the world my vision as an artist?”
As if finally unlocked and bubbling out of a bottle, her ideas started to flow freely. Gautier now knew where her journey was taking her. “Every dancer’s dream is to fly … and underwater I can do that.”
And then a unique opportunity came along: to participate in Marriott’s StoryBooked documentary series, which showcases the link between art and travel. The project would allow her to explore her artistic work at a location of her choice.
Julie knew immediately where she wanted to go: Mexico’s famed cenotes had long been a dream destination. The Yucatan Peninsula’s 7,000 natural sinkholes are unlike any other dives in the world.
“I love the mysticism of the place, where you walk on the ground but underwater,” she explains.
I love the mysticism of the place, where you walk on the ground but underwater.
While staying here at The Ritz-Carlton, Cancun, she could finally live out her lifelong dream of dancing while diving. The project would prove a milestone in her artistic development. “It is a wonderful showcase for my work, but also for me as an artist,” she says.
But something else came back into focus. Filming in Mexico gave her the opportunity to reconnect with a lifestyle much closer to nature and spirituality than our Western world, and one reminiscent of her roots.
“It reminded me of what really counts in life, the simple things, family, a modest meal drawn directly from what the soil provides,” she recalls. “That, and dance and water.”
Gautier felt she had come home in more than one sense:
“The Mayans say the cenotes are the entrance to the underworld,” says Gautier. “I found the soul of dance there, and from now on it will always be with me.”