Dana Gingras tunes into the the heart's wild wants in Heart as Arena

Animals of Distinction taps emotional and poundingly physical frequencies in radio-happy Heart as Arena

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      Vancouver dancer and choreographer Dana Gingras is known for her use of vivid video projections, but this time she’s turning away from moving pictures to dial madly through sounds. Her first piece in two years, Heart as Arena, will find about 60 vintage radios suspended over her performers, with a soundscape crafted from low-wattage transmissions of love songs and static.

      “There are no projectors to contend with, and I thought it would be easier: ‘We’ll just work with sound.’ But no,” an exhausted Gingras says with a dry laugh after a gruelling rehearsal with her four costars at a theatre in Lennoxville, Quebec. “We were getting all these radios tuned up today, and it feels like a lot.”

      Well, if there’s anything Gingras has specialized in over her career, it’s “a lot”. Past works by her Animals of Distinction company have featured animated drawings snaking out from dancers’ limbs (Chain Reaction); before that, with her Holy Body Tattoo troupe, the celebrated Circa brought together stylized tango dancing, live music, and atmospheric black-and-white film. The artist, who splits her time between Montreal and Vancouver, brings “a lot” of diverse talent into her shows, too: Heart as Arena has her collaborating with Toronto- and Chicago-based sound artist Anna Friz, Finnish sound and lighting artist Mikko Hynninen, and British dramaturge Ruth Little.

      “Contemporary dance is getting smaller and smaller because of our lean and mean times,” says Gingras, who will also see a multimedia commission debuted by the 605 Collective in the new year at the Cultch. “I’ve wanted to resist that in a way.”

      Heart as Arena had its genesis when she met Friz at a dinner party five years ago and started talking about pirate radio. She saw the potential of working the themes of transmission and tuning into a piece about matters of the heart.

      “The idea was basically you’re tuning into late-night radio and that there’s this radiophonic landscape we’re moving through,” she explains, and then starts riffing on the subject. “You’re looking for these love songs—there’s this constant search, and the dial slips. The signal and noise become a metaphor: that we’re in this eternal search. And it deals with the whole notion of transmission and reception and how we communicate.…Anna said the radio is an intricate game of position, and I think that’s true of relationships as well. So there’s a lot of tuning in and trying to position yourself in relation to another.”

      The themes have led to some clever explorations in movement: at times, the dancers couple and eventually become so close that the “static” between them builds up and they blow apart. Gingras has also been interested in the physiological functioning of the heart, and that led to the entire team taking a CPR course. “We wanted to take language from actual survival,” Gingras explains. “We were exploring the physical realities and mechanisms of the heart, because the piece is this constant search for something. We’re on the verge of losing a signal, a pulse—there’s always these moments of feeling the imminence of something being lost forever.”

      As for the look of the show, it finds the dancers—the crack team of Sarah Doucet, Shay Kuebler, Amber Funk Barton, and Masaharu Imazu, plus Gingras herself—wearing vintage garb that echoes the eras of the various radios. And there are high heels for the women—at least for a while.

      “It’s a very physical piece and those heels have to come off,” Gingras says.

      You see, Gingras doesn’t just put a lot of elements into the production of the piece; she throws a lot of highly physical movement into it—floor-pounding work with gravity, and a bit of antigravity too. In fact, talk about the movement and you begin to see that Gingras’s fatigue on this Quebec evening has to do with more than just fine-tuning all the technical elements of her radio-happy show. “We’re generating a lot of heat,” she says. “I was completely wet and dishevelled in there.”

      Do they have to practise her explosive movement as hard as they would perform it? Apparently the answer is yes.

      “We throw ourselves right in,” she affirms. “You have to practise it at the physical level that is required. You can’t not rehearse it at that level. If you don’t, you can dilute the intention of it. It has to have appetite in it or desire in it. It has to be over the edge.” Or right off the dial.

      Heart as Arena is at the Cultch Historic Theatre from Tuesday to Saturday (October 4 to 8).