Holy Body Tattoo and Godspeed You! Black Emperor re-team at Vancouver's PuSh Festival
Reformed dance troupe and iconoclastic 'rockestra' to take 2005 work on the road
When Vancouver modern dance troupe The Holy Body Tattoo debuted their work monumental in 2005, the world was a very different place: people used their mobile phones to actually call their friends; Hurricane Katrina was our first glimpse of a global warming–related disaster; and George W. Bush seemed destined to go down as the most ridiculous Republican in history. With their fiercely physical performance — featuring nine dancers in a row gesticulating violently while confined atop cubed pedestals — choreographers Noam Gagnon and Dana Gingras sought to embody the frantic pace and latent anxieties that had come to define 21st-century life in the post-9/11 era.
"There's the underlying anxiety that something is not right." - Holy Body Tattoo choregrapher Dana Gingras on why monumental is still relevant
On January 28, Holy Body Tattoo reconvene for the first time in 11 years to stage monumental at Vancouver's PuSh Festival, with several tour dates to follow. But don't call it a comeback. It's simply taken the duo the better part of a decade to wrangle the resources required to stage monumental in the grand venues they always envisioned for the piece. Fortunately — or rather, depressingly — the piece is arguably even more reflective of today's geopolitical landscape than the one that birthed it, thanks to the rise of Trumpian bully populism, a climate change–triggered Syrian refugee crisis, and rampant smartphone addiction that practically verges on mental illness.
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If the stressors have become all the more formidable, so too have The Holy Body Tattoo's defences against them. Where the original production used recordings by Montreal rockestra Godspeed You! Black Emperor as its soundtrack, the current incarnation sees the eight-piece band performing in the flesh alongside Holy Body's dancers. But while the two groups are a study in stark contrasts (the vigorous, hyperactive dance crew versus the seated, stern-faced musical ensemble), through separate interviews with Gagnon and Gingras, we've identified the three key points of intersection for these Canadian underground institutions, and why their confluence make the new monumental so much, more, well, monumental.
Like Godspeed, Holy Body Tattoo have roots in the '90s Montreal punk scene, but had relocated to Vancouver by the middle of that decade, setting up shop in a rehearsal space near the city's notorious East Hastings strip. While piecing together the material that would form Godspeed's 1997 debut album, f#a#∞, members of the band made a sojourn to Vancouver and captured field recordings of various neighbourhood locals, which frame the album's "East Hastings" movement. Upon hearing it for the first time, Gagnon recognized the voices.
"One of the characters on their record was this woman we talked to everyday and gave her money and had some kind of relationship with her," Gagnon says. "And the 'preacher man' guy that's also in the work was one of the regular guys around the neighbourhood. So this coincidental connection with Godspeed was there right from the start."
"We may technologically have advanced as a society, but internally, we're still struggling." - Holy Body Tattoo choreographer Noam Gagnon
Godspeed are notorious for being very protective of their music; for all the cinematic qualities ascribed to their epic side-long suites, they have, with very few exceptions, refused to allow their music to be used in films, TV shows or theatrical productions. However, as Gingras notes, "Montreal is a small place" when it comes to the arts scene. "The nice thing about Montreal is you really don't have big distinctions between music communities, dance communities, theatre communities — bohemia still exists." A friendship with (now former) Godspeed guitarist Roger Tellier-Craig was the impetus for Holy Body Tattoo using various pieces from f#a#∞ in the 2005 version of monumental. But beyond the surface scene connection, there exists a more profound spiritual bond between the two entities.
"I think we share a sense of being aware of the world around us, and aware of the times that we come from and somehow relating to that through our work," Gingras says. "There's the underlying anxiety that something is not right, which is what I think is what [monumental] taps into. There's a physical anxiety that gets expressed in the piece. But there's also this deeper level — it's like storm clouds are gathering and something is just not okay underneath. And I feel that sense of uncertainty is stronger than ever. They're talking about a financial collapse in 2016 — here we go: It's 2008 all over again. How can this be? Nothing's changed."
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"What's amazing is that we may technologically have advanced as a society, but internally, we're still struggling," adds Gagnon. "We're still talking about inequality between men and women in terms of salary. I think we have more crises now than ever — not only financial, but with the climate, as well. I think the inequalities are starting to show their peaks on all levels. Too much is too much and too little is too little, and it comes to a point where that starts breaking down. What drives those forces are still human beings, and one thing we forget is we're just like an animal that can talk. We're part of this world, and what we do has an impact of everything that lives around us. And what is actually keeping us alive, we're killing it slowly. Meanwhile, we have these weird values and think that by being super-connected and being super-bombarded by information, we actually know better. We just don't know where our centre is anymore."
The mere act of watching a Godspeed concert while seated in a theatre can be an intensely physical one. When the band reaches one of their cataclysmic crescendos, it's not unlike facing a jet turbine, where you feel the sound hitting your face as much as you're receiving it in your ears. Now imagine being a dancer trying to perform an already strenuous routine on a small pedestal as Godspeed roar alongside them.
"The first day the band came in for rehearsal, the music started and I've never seen the dancers kick into this whole other gear that I've never seen before, because of the proximity to this wall of sound," Gingras marvels. "You could just see the amount of energy that it gave the dancers was profound — and very different than just pressing play on a recording. It becomes a very visceral experience. And it's hard, because the dancers also give each other a lot verbal cues, so they're screaming to hear themselves. That already puts their body in a different state."
But, as Gagnon explains, rather than serve as a potential distraction, the punishing presence of the band actually reinforces what monumental is ultimately about.
"The work is made to break you down," he says. "You've got nine dancers submitting to the power of the work, which is relentless and pushing them forward until they're left with just their humanity. That's when you realize what you're made of. There's that same sense of eroding in Godspeed's music."
And just as Godspeed's work offsets its orchestro-punk eruptions with moments of exquisite, eye-welling beauty, Gingras sees the silver linings in monumental's brutalist, grey-blocked ballet.
"It's about how we should perceive the road ahead: with an optimistic outlook, or is the media actually getting the better of us, by fostering this sense of fear? To me, the hope is that it comes back to individuals and small communities and how we can, amongst each other, have a sense of goodwill and compassion and empathy and kindness.
"I just think the act of creating is linked to hope, because it's creative, not destructive. So, right away, it's putting an artist in a position where there's a responsibility to contribute in a way that provides hope through creation. Everything can be falling around us, and sometimes I go, 'Does it really matter, these small acts of creation? Can a dance piece really change anything? And perhaps not, but I think the fact that it's an act of creation is important, and we persevere with that."
The Holy Body Tattoo perform monumental with Godspeed You! Black Emperor at the PuSh Festival on Thu., January 28. Queen Elizabeth Theatre, 630 Hamilton St., Vancouver, BC. Tickets from $45 at ticketfly.com. They also play Places des Arts in Montreal on April 11 and 12, and the Grand Theatre du Quebec in Quebec City on April 15.