By Yasmine Shemesh
VANCOUVER — The alarm rings. It’s 6 a.m. You shower, brush your teeth, get dressed, and go to work. You finish at 5 p.m., go home, eat dinner, drink a glass of wine, have sex, have a smoke, and go to bed. The cycle repeats itself the next day and the day after that. Cities grow, buildings get taller and wider, people get raises, people get fired. People are homeless, they look for shelter, search for a break, and get pushed to outskirts of gentrified neighbourhoods that are crowded with tall, wide buildings. People are rich. People are poor. The cycle repeats itself. The monotonous nature of corporate urban life is a sequence of repetition — a perpetual quest to uphold a certain lifestyle or to live up to a preconceived societal notion. On the flip side are those simply trying to survive — those who call the city’s streets their home and are struggling to exist in a realm beset with hunger, crime, and lack of proper shelter. Anxiety, inevitably, accumulates in trying to maintain or persist. This amalgamation of human fragility and the rigidity of social order is what steered the creative reins of monumental, one of the most compelling works of the iconic Vancouver-based dance company The Holy Body Tattoo. It will be performed at this year’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival for the first time in a decade since the company disbanded.
Formed by dancers and artistic directors Dana Gingras and Noam Gagnon in 1992, The Holy Body Tattoo often used strenuous movements of the body to discuss modern life — techniques employed to reveal one’s most honest and vulnerable state. Daring subject matter and cross-discipline collaborations with visual artists, filmmakers, and musicians made the dance company the punks of international performing arts. They have toured tirelessly through Canada, The United States, and Europe with critically acclaimed pieces that earned accolades including the Dora Mavor Moore Award for Best Ensemble Performance and the very first Alcan Performing Arts Award in the dance category.
Gingras and Gagnon’s studio was located in Chinatown — a place that gave the choreographers a front row seat to the duality of poverty and affluence, and the evolving face of the city. “In the early nineties, Vancouver was at the brink of a lot of change in terms of lots of construction and in terms of the growth of money,” Gagnon says. “Basically every time you’d turn around, there’d be a new building. And places where there was nothing — within the course of a year or so you’d have an entirely new neighbourhood. So, that meant, also, a lot of old buildings were being torn down. It was really interesting — the way the city was having to shift around on what was already established and where communities were being pushed and gentrified in certain areas. It was quite a fascinating and not always, I find, a positive experience when you look at the turn out of certain events.”
There was one woman in particular, Gagnon remembers, that he and Gingras would see everyday outside the studio. A big, beautiful creature who’d wander the neighbourhood, belting out gospel songs, and begging for spare change. “We witnessed, at one point, people trying to steal her money,” he continues. “Then she was yelling, ‘give me my money!’ and they came back with a two by four and hit her in the face. I mean, the violence and the things that we witnessed — that became part of the work. These people felt a very contemporary urban anxiety… and the rat race that those people [were part of], also. This sense of survival…”
To begin to portray life’s daily grind for monumental (what would ultimately be The Holy Body Tattoo’s fifth and final piece), Gingras and Gagnon looked to the picture book “Men in the Cities,” a series of images of people in motion by American visual artist Robert Longo. “The vocabulary of the piece is based on these different drawings,” Gingras explains. “If you went through the book like a flip-book, you would see movement. [With] monumental, it was really like, ‘how do we create this choreography like a series of stop-frame motions?’” With the choreographic base formed, Gingras and Gagnon asked their dancers to go out into the streets, walk around, and observe people. “The dancers came in with this whole arsenal of vocabulary where they watched people walk, they watched people’s little gestures and ticks — and we call them the obsessive gestures,” Gingras continues. “So then we plugged all of that into the vocabulary. And also the dancers own obsessive ticks themselves. We have these things that we do. There’s all that personality in the work, as well.”
In the piece, nine dancers are placed upon pedestals. Confinement, paired with repetitive and physically arduous movements, lead to an inexorable break in form, both physically and mentally. “Nature tends to be bigger and more powerful than our man-made ideals and structures,” Gingras says. “I think this idea in monumental when the dancers are standing on pedestals, it’s like we’re putting these human ideals on pedestals, but eventually it has to fall apart, it has to tumble. It’s kind of a hubris that eventually takes over. You can’t just stay in this place and think we’re indestructible. We’re human. We’re fragile. Things will happen and that pedestal will be knocked out and power fluctuates. It doesn’t ever stay the same.”
There is an honesty that arises when a point of complete expenditure is reached, when someone is completely used up and wrung out and forced to simply carry on. “I find it’s a fascinating thing,” Gagnon says. “It happens in our bodies and it happens in objects, but it also happens in our mind. We keep pushing the same ideas, even when you realize it’s not working. We are not what we think we are. Nature will always win.”
The original score for monumental was comprised of cut-and-paste tracks from Canadian post-rock ensemble Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s first album, F♯ A♯ ∞. Apocalyptic, beautiful, and laced with sprawling instrumentals, the band’s experimental arrangements were an impeccable fit to accentuate the piece. “Their music tends to build into this epic sense of swell and emotion and intensity, and monumental has that kind of — things build and build. It’s like a storm gathering and then it releases,” Gingras says. “So the music, the mood of it, where it placed the audience in terms of an emotional experience and resonance, was apt.”
Monumental first premiered in 2005. Then, The Holy Body Tattoo disbanded and Gagnon and Gingras moved on to other projects. Gagnon founded the dance company Vision Impure, as well as the Vancouver-based Wellness Centre – Beyond Pilates Inc. Gingras re-located to Montreal where she formed the dance company Animals of Distinction. Bringing monumental back was the original initiative of David Sefton, an artistic director who had presented it in 2006 during his tenure at California’s UCLA Live. He was so taken by the performance and its score that he was determined for it to be done with Godspeed You! Black Emperor performing live in accompaniment. Problem was, the group was on hiatus. “In 2010, the band started coming back together and touring again and David sort of popped his head up and was like, ‘maybe we can make this happen now!’” Gingras laughs. After what seemed like a serendipitous series of events, Gingras and Gagnon reunited and spent the following four years planning how to revisit the work once again.
“I was worried,” Gingras admits. “I was like, ‘okay, there’s talk of remounting monumental, but is it relevant still?’ And the really surprising thing is that it’s actually more relevant now than it was even in that time. In that time, it was kind of looking ahead a bit, like ‘Where are we going? What’s happening?’ And now we’re fully in it. I think it’s really the right time to bring that piece back. I think it will resonate.”
“I think we have a greater perspective, in order to approach and attack the material and inform the material,” Gagnon adds. “So this production, I would say, is 100 times more powerful, if not just because of the live music and the powerful soundscape that Godspeed has provided for us.” Godspeed You! Black Emperor will be onstage performing a re-invigorated version of the original score, combining older material with new and unreleased music. The collision of energy between the dancers and the band is like, as Gagnon puts it, “an atomic bomb.”
As cities continue to densify, as violence and intolerance rise around the world, as human connection becomes increasingly more difficult, the intention of monumental indeed seems more applicable now than ever. Nothing, not even the most oiled machines, can endure forever. In our case, innate humanness must eventually crack the concrete wall of order. Despite societal expectations, regardless of class and caste, or the towering barriers that physically separate us, there is one irrefutable fact that remains: we are all human.
“We wanted to do work like this, that really expressed the malaise, the desires, the richness of our flaws,” Gagnon says. “I mean, we’ll never be perfect. And the beauty of our sense of being and that sense of really acknowledging the imperfections and the mistakes that happen and learning from them… At one point we’re going to have to realize that we’re going to have to come together… We really all need to look at whatever we can do in order to create a return to something a little bit more simple. And the first thing is certainly being able to look at ourselves.”
monumental will be performed on January 28 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre as part of The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.BC, British Columbia, dance, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, monumental, PuSh, Push Festival 2016, Queen Elizabeth Theatre, The Holy Body Tattoo