Choreographer Dana Gingras’s previous work at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival featured frantic urbanites convulsing atop stark-white pedestals. Part of the rush of watching the Holy Body Tattoo’s monumental in 2016 came from seeing what the performers could pull off on their precarious perches. Now, in Frontera, another massively scaled multimedia show at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre by Gingras’s more recent company Animals of Distinction, 10 performers will dart and dodge between columns of light.
Right from the early days of the Holy Body Tattoo, the seismic company she cofounded in 1993 here with Noam Gagnon, the now-Montreal-based artist has thrived under scenic constraints—this despite her dance being known for its hair-flailing, pummelling abandon.
“I like limitations early on in the process,” the former Vancouverite tells the Straight from home in la belle province, where she says she’s enjoying one of the most fertile periods of her career. “Right away there’s tension. There are edges that create a kind of pressure on the work. We need to feel those edges, and the movement needs to be restricted at times. And then there’s the free space where these lines of desire open for the dancer—where we’re really exploring where our freedom lies.”
The idea of freedom and the barriers that threaten it weighed heavily on Gingras when she started creating Frontera. Monumental, which toured everywhere from Australia’s Adelaide Festival to New York City’s BAM Next Wave Festival, had been such a success, plans started almost right away for another large work with live music. Whereas monumental had felt part concert, with cult orchestral postrockers God Speed You! Black Emperor on-stage, the idea was that Frontera would feature otherworldly electro-guitar experimentalists Fly Pan Am (God Speed You! musician Roger Tellier-Craig’s latest project).
“I got excited seeing my work in larger venues,” Gingras enthuses, “but out of that I realized I like to either make work for, like, 90 people that’s really experimental and out-there and closer to what you would call performance art, or else something on a larger scale. I decided the middle ground isn’t interesting to me.”
A residency at O Vertigo Dance’s spacious Centre de Création, backed by $160,000 from the National Creation Fund, allowed Gingras to work with the large cast, the band, and the light effects Frontera requires.
Considering she started working on the piece in late 2016, on the heels of Donald Trump’s election to the White House, it should come as no surprise that borders and barriers became a theme.
“Everyone was walking around in a bit of a daze and a stupor, and there was so much rhetoric around creating a wall and creating divisions between us and them,” she recalls. “So that was preoccupying me. And then at the same time I was getting ready to go back to Argentina, where I grew up as a child, and take my husband, who had never been there. So there were these ideas of being a foreigner and being from the outside.”
Gingras admits she’s always felt like an outsider. Born in Fort St. John, she moved with her family to Argentina at three, then spent high school in the U.K. before coming to Vancouver and discovering contemporary dance at 18. “I was saying, ‘Ugh, where do I belong? What does home feel like?’” she remembers.
Gingras admits that, even as an artist, she’s operated from the margins. “I’m interested in seeing humans instead of dance culture on-stage,” explains the choreographer, who got her start at Vancouver’s experimental EDAM. “I never felt like I fit into dance culture.… I want to see what moves people rather than making it beautiful.”
Gingras worked with the U.K.–based collective UVA (United Visual Artists) to build the light projections for Frontera, using pivoting spotlights to construct ever-shifting rays. Those shards of light would shape the space, symbolizing the political and the personal—external walls and the ones we carry inside us, as well as the ever-watchful eye of mass surveillance.
“The dancers feel the projections from the inside,” Gingras says. “Because of the way the light is animated, it keeps it very alive. They don’t know whether the lights are going on or off. The early research with UVA was working with a gridlike way of moving through space, which is a lot like the way we move through urban planning. We were working with a lot of vertical and horizontal axes, and scale.… We’re moving within infrastructures of control, and then setting that against this free movement.”
In the studio, Gingras says she kept talking to her dancers about finding their “unruly body”—one that resisted control. She drew a lot of inspiration from parkour and free running. “What they do is so lovely and subversive, to find these forbidden spaces and move through them in this way—spaces that they go around or under,” she says.
Fuelling that movement will be the live, thrashing energy of Fly Pan Am, which was coming right out of finishing its heady new album C’est Ça when it moved into the studio with Gingras to create an original score.
“So much music was made in the room,” she marvels. “I had sketches of choreography and they had sketches of sound….We pushed them and they pushed what we were doing.
“I’m probably just a frustrated musician,” adds Gingras, whose other career highlights include choreographing the video for Montreal indie gods Arcade Fire’s “Sprawl II”. “Most of my friends are musicians. Music has always been the thing I’ve been most drawn to. Music is what inspires me and makes me want to move.”
The resulting work is an intense symphony of sculptured light, blistering sound, and urgent movement—one that disrupts and disturbs, particularly in 2020, when the world is even more divided than it was when Gingras started all this.
Does she think there’s a way through? “I always go into it hopeful. I make work because I’m hopeful,” she says. “But I think it’s a very dark piece.”
Perhaps the most positive thing to come out of Frontera is that it is an act of massive collaboration. “The love that exists between everyone involved in the work—it is the most joyful, beautiful ensemble of people,” Gingras says. “We created a little utopia.”
The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival presents Frontera at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on January 30.