The Holy Body Tattoo was, and still is, the most rock ’n’ roll of Vancouver dance troupes. Through the 1990s and into the 2000s, the duo of Dana Gingras and Noam Gagnon pushed movement to extremes, punishing their bodies, boldly mixing in video and music, and touring all over North America and Europe.
In those years, even in laid-back Vancouver, the shows caused the excitement of an underground concert. Anyone who scored tickets to 2001’s steamy, tango-twisted Circa, with its mesmerizing black-and-white projections of Paris and its live accompaniment by macabre cabaret band the Tiger Lillies, will never forget it. Ditto for the sheer thrill of watching the body-slamming ode to the urban rush that was Poetry & Apocalypse.
And then, in the mode of “better to burn out than to fade away”, the Holy Body Tattoo pulled off its most ambitious work ever with 2005’s monumental. Soon after, it folded up shop. Looking back on the audacity of trying to stage monumental now, Gingras can barely believe what the troupe accomplished.
“We really took a risk making that work at that time,” says the raven-haired artist, sitting with the Straight at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival’s downtown offices during a brief visit to Vancouver from her adopted home base of Montreal. She’s as striking a presence as ever in a black sweater, with a grey scarf slung Euro-style around her neck. “We didn’t know how we were going to finance it. We didn’t have the kind of funding that would warrant hiring nine dancers and then taking 16 people out on the road. It was like free-falling.”
As they always had, the duo just took the leap, securing recorded music from orchestral-postrock cult faves Godspeed You! Black Emperor, projections from filmmaker William Morrison, and haunting existential text from Jenny Holzer. Monumental took almost three years to attract enough funding, but it was an immediate hit when it debuted here at the Playhouse. Watching the dancers twitch, struggle, and convulse on the show’s visually striking white pillars was riveting: sometimes the performers looked like moving sculptures, at other times like alienated urbanites isolated on their own islands.
But the big ideas required larger theatres than the Holy Body Tattoo could ultimately book, Gingras explains.
Monumental, in hindsight, was not just the culmination of everything the Holy Body Tattoo had done, but, ironically, the beginning of the end. The company had maxed out. And monumental never gained the mass exposure it deserved. Eventually, Gingras went on to create her own company, Animals of Distinction, while Gagnon stayed here in Vancouver, performing work as Vision Impure.
USUALLY IN LIFE, and in art, you can’t go back. Which is what makes the spectacular new mounting of monumental, 10 years later—this time with live accompaniment by Montreal’s Godspeed You! Black Emperor—so amazing. Presenter David Sefton, who programmed it at UCLA during its initial run, never forgot about the work, and when he heard that Godspeed You! was touring again, he started the long process of trying to stage the show with the band live. And after four years of talks and scheduling, that dream finally came to fruition.
“With the band, we finally can scale it up,” Gingras says. “The fact that the band is involved means it can go to a level it never could before.
“It never crossed our minds that the band could ever play with the show,” she adds, pointing out Godspeed You! was in the midst of a hiatus and breakup rumours when monumental was created. After debuting here at PuSh, the show journeys to Quebec, Australia’s Adelaide Festival (where Sefton is now artistic director), Edinburgh, and elsewhere, timed to fit in between Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s own touring schedule.
Speaking to the Straight later, from rehearsals in Montreal with the band and a new crew of dancers (including Vancouver’s Shay Kuebler), Gagnon is clearly stoked. On returning to work with the Holy Body Tattoo, he simply says: “It’s who I am. I’ve evolved and explored new dimensions, but going back there is like going home. It is just a pleasure sharing the room with Dana again.
“This was such a quintessential work for our company. By the time we finished, we had accomplished so much. So how great is it to go deeper and really polish and deepen what was already there?” he adds.
Both Gagnon and Gingras say they are seeing the work with fresh eyes—removed, as they are, from the intensity of the company in the mid 2000s.
“I think I just realized how kind of crazy we were and just how raw the work was, and I think we really operated outside of a lot of what was going on at the time,” Gingras reflects. “We really were doing our own thing. We were just going for it, you know? And I think because there were two of us, we were there to buoy each other along and support each other when we had to take the blows.”
Gagnon, who met Gingras in 1987 at influential Vancouver dance studio EDAM, reflects a similar view. “We were very different in some ways, but what we shared in common was this crazy vision. Then it came to a point where we were like, ‘How do you top this?’ ”
Both are stunned by the way monumental, created before the digital insanity of social media and before the 2008 economic collapse, speaks even more powerfully to the pressures of today than to those of 2005.
“We really explore the physical anxiety of our urban culture,” Gagnon says. “It’s brutal and intimate, and it makes it even more crystal clear how we struggle in our daily life, with the barrage of information now. It’s about conformity and nonconformity and about really trying to find your voice.”
He says the intensity of the piece has been upped considerably by the heady wall of sound created by the band, which has had to work with the dancers on the piece’s torrent of choreographic cues.
GINGRAS SAYS SHE'S EQUALLY struck by what monumental has to say about alienation and the forces of homogenization in our hyper-wired world. “I’m happy it’s still relevant and can still have a resonance in the times we live in, because I wouldn’t want to remount a piece that’s like a museum piece,” she says. The choreographer adds with a laugh: “Like, ‘Look how quaint they were back in the 1990s!’ ”
In all, it’s got to be a bittersweet process, revisiting the piece they made at the height of the Holy Body Tattoo’s mad whirl of creation—though both these artists say remounting monumental is inspiring them to move ahead with their own, individual work.
“It completes the mandate of what the company was about,” says Gagnon. “It’s what our essence was, and it was extremely rock ’n’ roll on that level: daring to expose, daring to be loud, and daring to take a position.”
He feels at home returning to the Holy Body Tattoo, but at the same time, like Gingras, he would rather look forward than get too nostalgic. “To be honest, working on it really keeps me in the present. I go, ‘Hey, hopefully it will open doors for more,’ ” he says. “But we know this is what we worked for—that still hasn’t changed for us. Sometimes in rehearsal, we look at each other with tears in our eyes to realize the importance of this. It’s a gift. And I certainly am in a better place to appreciate it and to understand it.”
The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival presents monumental at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre next Thursday (January 28).