Holy Body Tattoo strips down daring dance

The mere mention of Vancouver dance company Holy Body Tattoo gets people excited. Cofounders Dana Gingras and Noam Gagnon create extreme dance: their relentless movement is physical to the point of brutality. They probe emotions that are as tender as they are torrid. And with elements like video and live music, pop-culture references, and a streak of dark humour, their ambitious multimedia shows have an ultrahip sensibility. Are the artists in tune with what dance fans and young audiences around the globe want? You bet. Are they predictable? Hardly.

For evidence of Holy Body Tattoo's innovation, look to its latest creation, a mixed program called Running Wild. The production is a radical departure from past HBT pieces. Circa, for instance--a sexy, full-length work that Gagnon and Gingras premiered in 2000 and have been touring to places like Croatia, Italy, and Switzerland ever since--fused film segments with the duo's own take on the tango and live accompaniment by the Tiger Lillies. The dancers also blended media in successes like 1994's Poetry & Apocalypse and 1996's our brief eternity.

But now, Running Wild--an evening of short works that has its world premiere at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre next Thursday to the following Saturday (May 13 to 22)--delves into pure dance.

"This is stripped down, raw simplicity," Gingras says in an interview along with Gagnon over coffee. "It is a contrast to our big, multimedia works. With those, some people said they didn't know where to focus; there was too much going on. Now there is only one choice. It's just the dancer.

"We wanted balance in our lives. We're experimenting to stay creative. It's an intimate show. It's Holy Body unplugged," she adds, laughing. Gagnon jumps in: "We need to keep ourselves entertained....You can't just do the same thing. That is so boring."

Although the two performers, who met at Vancouver's Experimental Dance and Music company in the late '80s, are taking a different tack, they're not abandoning their creative roots altogether. Still apparent in pieces like the duet Running Wild--which is set to an original, ethereal score they commissioned from English cult band the Tindersticks--are grit and energy, and the theme of pushing the body to its limits.

"It's deconstructed and less driving, but it's still close to Poetry & Apocalypse," Gingras says of the work, which will be danced by Day Helesic and Blair Neufeld. "There is that insatiable quality."

Gingras explores a similar yearning in Crave, a solo she'll perform at the Cultch. (Rounding out the program are Via and I Will Always Remember to Forget About You, for Helesic and Neufeld, and Gone, a solo created and performed by Gagnon.) The starting point, Gingras explains, was an exhibition of modern art she saw in Venice. Francis Bacon had a quote next to one of his works that described painting as a means of imprinting his nervous system on canvas.

"I couldn't stop thinking about it, because it is so similar to dance," she says. "Dance is about imprinting the nervous system on an empty space....Then I started looking at desire and longing, that sense of want, need, desire, hunger. In a sense that's where we're at as a society, always wanting more."

If there's one thing Gingras and Gagnon can't get enough of, it's performing, and their schedule is as unyielding as their vocabulary. They're developing Monumental, a piece for nine dancers that will premiere next spring. They've done more than 100 performances of Circa in the last four years, including 10 sold-out shows at London's Barbican International Theatre.

But while dancing feeds their souls, it also takes a toll on their bodies. They admit that executing their characteristically punishing gestures over the past decade has had a cumulative effect, one that is exacerbated by age: Gingras is 37, and Gagnon is turning 41 later this month. In 2001, the latter "squished" a cervical disc.

"The body is like a time bomb," Gagnon says. "It's like, 'Okay, you want to do this? You need to sleep for two days.'"

"You can go deeper in terms of expression, as an interpreter, but physically it's harder," adds Gingras. "We are our occupations."

The inherent strain, combined with so much time on the road, makes for jobs that demand much on a personal level. Still, the two say that their working partnership just keeps getting stronger.

"Of course there are ups and downs, but that's where the beauty is in a relationship," Gagnon says. "You get exposed, you get afraid, you retaliate. But we're still standing, we're still dancing. We may even be vacationing together," he adds with a laugh, before noting: "It's demanding, it's scary; sometimes it's easy and sometimes it's not. But you keep adapting, going with the changes. It's a metaphor for life."