An Animals of Distinction and Holy Body Tattoo coproduction. At the Vancouver East Cultural Centre on Tuesday, May 2. No remaining performances
To launch Animals of Distinction, a "satellite" company of the Holy Body Tattoo, HBT cofounder Dana Gingras presented a two-hour installation-based work at the Cultch. Although Smash Up featured some imaginative mixed-media scenes and other parts that were just plain fun, it was hardly a riotous success.
This was especially disappointing because Gingras is a seasoned dance professional who has earned a reputation, along with Noam Gagnon, for creating the Holy Body Tattoo's internationally recognized repertoire.
Gingras incorporated various multimedia elements in Smash Up, including live computer-generated animation. Her choreography featured HBT's distinctive repetition, though not its full-tilt physicality or palpable aggression. But individual segments were so busy that neither the movement nor the visuals were all that powerful. Other parts were disorganized, at least on opening night. Although splitting the audience into two "teams"–the Bears and the Bunnies, each of which eventually made their way to different parts of the theatre during the evening–might have worked conceptually, the show's execution wasn't without flaws. On Tuesday both groups stood in the Cultch's parking lot for nearly 20 minutes in a cold wind waiting for the piece to start. Finally, Smash Up's cast showed up in a shiny '59 Ford Ranchero. We got a brief glimpse of them before everyone shuffled into the Cultch through a side door, along dingy corridors, and into the theatre.
From there, dancer Susan Elliott performed "849: Body Ache" while projections of vividly coloured sketches by James Paterson and Amit Pitaru scrolled along the floor and up a screen at the back of the stage. The effect was dizzying, and Elliott's compact physicality impressed.
House lights abruptly flashed on, and it was time for the Bear team to follow Andrea Gunnlaugson, wearing a grizzly costume (and holding various placards, including one that read "Who farted?"), into the Cultch's lobby, where Sonja Perreten took to a tiny stage for "A Million Tiny Robots in Your Head". Her solo also featured projected animation, a monochromatic stream of little white ghosts and skulls. Add the noise-core of San Diego band the Locust and a strobe light, and the scene was headache-inducing, possibly on purpose. Still, Perreten's rudimentary movement, which included the dancer messing up her hair with her fingers, grew tedious.
Presumably one of Smash Up's intentions was to break down barriers between performers and audiences, as shown by the end of Perreten's number. She stepped off-stage and into the viewers, literally shoving some aside. She was in your face–but so what?
The two teams switched places, and the Bears went back to the theatre space to watch "I Am a Chain Reaction", the night's most memorable offering. Gingras and Sarah Doucet spent most of the duet on the floor, twisting their bodies as if in a fitful sleep, only to stop in murder scene–like poses. Those positions were then traced, live, through the use of software and projected on the floor. The outlines would disappear as quickly as they appeared. The fresh blend of dance and drawing mesmerized. Another entrancing scene was Perreten's aqua-themed "Davey Jones' Locker". Wearing a snorkelling mask and flippers, she delivered slow, flowing gestures, swimming in a soothing pool of blue-green light.
Far less compelling was "Quartet", which took up Smash Up's second half. Featuring Gingras, Doucet, and Sií´ned Watkins, the trio was monotonous. If that effect was intentional, the piece didn't arouse feelings of angst, as HBT has successfully done in the past, because it was hard to care about what was transpiring. One dancer would take centre stage while the other two stood by, motionless and expressionless. The three rarely physically connected with each other, nor did they emotionally connect with the audience. The simplistic movement, with lots of head-flinging and arm circles, couldn't sustain interest for what seemed like such a long time. Perhaps one of the benefits Gingras has gained from working so closely with Gagnon over the years is a fresh set of eyes; here, there was no sense of much-needed editing. (Gagnon is pursuing his own dance projects in addition to cohelming HBT and running his downtown Pilates studio.)
Even though the cast and crew came on-stage after "Quartet" for applause, Smash Up was, surprisingly, not over. After some viewers had already left, an usher directed those remaining to the parking lot once more, only to lead them back to the front sidewalk. Eventually, the performers ran out of the building and into their waiting car. The driver revved the engine and screeched off, likely to the disgruntlement of local residents.
It's vital to take artistic risks, but Gingras would have been better off choosing more calculated ones.