No Fun channels early Iggy Pop at Dancing on the Edge fest

Choreographer Helen Simard taps the raw power of one of rock’s most fearless performers

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      Helen Simard says she’s “not great with crowds”. So it was that she found herself hunkered down at the back of a concert by iconic postrock deconstructionists Swans, bracing herself against the bludgeoning waves of noise. And from that vantage point, she started to see the whole scene through choreographic eyes.

      “I became fascinated that watching the concert was like watching a show, not a concert,” the dance artist explains over the line from Montreal before heading to Dancing on the Edge here. Aside from the overwhelming lights and sound emanating from the stage, “there were people trying to push their way into the crowd; the merch girl was getting into a fight.”

      It was physical chaos on a grand scale. Later, Simard started thinking about singers. “They have a lot in common with dancers: your body is your instrument,” she says. “I wanted to look at the physicality of a singer.” Some frontmen seemed too obvious as dancers (James Brown, Mick Jagger); others weren’t physical enough (hello, Robert Smith).

      That’s when she zeroed in on Iggy Pop, one of rock ’n’ roll’s most reckless and raw performers. He’s the original punk, a self-lacerating, stage-diving, peanut-butter-smearing legend—a legend that has since inspired three of Simard’s dance works. And the bombastic first, No Fun, is finally hitting the Edge fest.

      “When we started No Fun, the idea was just to do one thing, but the further we went down the Iggy Pop wormhole, the more interesting it got,” Simard admits. “He has a completely unique persona that’s lasted 50 years so far! He’s also had a lot of failure. He kept trying to reinvent himself and that would succeed in some ways, then he would fail again.” In movies, Simard explains, we never want a story to be all good. “I feel Iggy Pop’s career is full of car chases and explosions. You could make 20 shows about Iggy Pop and they’d all be different.”

      Simard immersed herself in the archival photos and film of the early Iggy and the Stooges days. “One thing that’s interesting is there actually is a fairly defined vocabulary,” she recalls. “It might not be obvious if you only watch one concert, but when you watch a lot, there are little choreographies he does to specific songs.”

      She then took that movement language and built the work in the studio, as she always does with her company, with the live musicians right there, riffing on the Stooges’ sound. With a strong background in street dance and breaking, she works a lot through improvisation: “We jam and document a lot.”

      the music is too loud, the lights are too bright, and there’s a bunch of stuff happening all over the stage."">
      No Fun's creator notes that "the music is too loud, the lights are too bright, and there’s a bunch of stuff happening all over the stage."
      Frédéric Chais

      The biggest challenge, she says, was getting the performers to tap their crude inner Iggies. “I noticed how difficult it was for the dancers to let go of beauty and wanting to do things well,” Simard says. “With Iggy it was about rawness and throwing yourself into it. We struggled with ‘How do we make this movement safe but let go of making it look good or be liked?’”

      The result is a show as bombastic as any concert, a controlled chaos of glaring lights, wailing electric guitars, and unhinged movement across the stage. It may be the only dance performance you attend this year where they’re handing out earplugs—not exactly a luxury Pop gave his audiences.

      “The Stooges were in people’s faces and it really was too much,” Simard reflects. “We’re living in a time when people want to see things that are pretty and safe. But if people are going to feel alive, it’s often when feeling overwhelms you, when you’re living your own emotions. So, yeah, the music is too loud, the lights are too bright, and there’s a bunch of stuff happening all over the stage.

      “It’s information overload to the point where people can’t understand all that’s going on. And for me that’s a beautiful thing,” she adds. “It’s about dance that allows you to experience something else: it’s not about making sense of it. You may walk out of it saying, ‘What the hell just happened?’ I want to create a space where it’s okay if you don’t get it.”

      Dancing on the Edge presents No Fun at the Firehall Arts Centre on July 14 and 15.