Friday, January 29, 2016

PuSh 2016: Monumental

When I first saw The Holy Body Tattoo's Monumental, back in 2005, I was just beginning to immerse myself in the Vancouver dance scene. It blew my mind. Here was a piece that combined a pounding rock score, projections showcasing the inimitable social observations of text-based artist Jenny Holzer, and 75 minutes of relentless, physically punishing choreography--much of it in unison or complicated canon--performed by nine dancers on top of raised plinths. A post-9/11 meditation on the fear, anxiety, alienation and atomizing sameness of life in the global city, the piece had an electric response on the audience. Exhausted and ennervated, but also jangly with an excess of sensory energy, it was impossible not to feel more alive exiting the theatre. And not to want more of this kind of dance performance in the city.

Unfortunately, Monumental would be the last work produced by The Holy Body Tattoo's co-founders, Dana Gingras and Noam Gagnon. After twelve years creating some of the most original, genre-defying, and athletic works in the city, they went there separate ways. Dana moved to Montreal to found Animals of Distinction and Noam stayed put to run Vision Impure. But, to paraphrase Buddy Holly, the love has not faded away. After a ten-year hiatus, the two choreographers are back together, reforming The Holy Body Tattoo for a remount of Monumental, this time with live music by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The first performance of a planned world tour was last night at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, presented as part of the PuSh Festival. The experience of seeing the work once again in a space just next door from where I originally saw it (the Playhouse) was uncanny. It wasn't so much that I kept anticipating or misremembering what was coming next, or that I spent the evening mapping this production's dancers onto the bodies of the original cast (all but Shay Kuebler appear to be from Montreal this time around). Rather, I think it was that my sedimented memories of 2005 were awakened just enough by the spatial proximity of this 2016 performance to make it seem, for a brief palimpsestic moment, as if no time had passed at all.

While my schedule this morning doesn't permit me to go into depth about the show (I'll leave that cumulative assignment to my students, who have been instructed to post capsule reviews of the piece here), I do want to comment on three things. First, if you'll forgive the bad pun (though not as bad as Norman's in introducing the show last night!), the live music definitely elevates Monumental to new heights. The bass beat of the drums alone is enough to quicken one's pulse, so much so that I'm sure in some of the more propulsive sections my heart was keeping as strict a count as the dancers on their plinths. Second, I had forgotten how much tenderness Dana and Noam had woven into the piece alongside all of the ruthless and at times downright cruel physicality. In Monumental the dancers are merciless in their abuse of their own and each others' bodies, first driving their legs into and then throwing their entire bodies at the plinths, obsessively combing or pulling at their hair like it's filled with lice, and routinely chasing and swatting and encircling and goading each other like so many schoolyard bullies. At the same time, as in the ending to the piece, there are quiet moments of compassion and connection when one dancer will reach out to another, or offer a limb as ballast, or lift a broken body up off the floor. And many of the poses and gestures that the dancers cycle through on their plinths can be read as much as acts of supplication as of angry accusation. Finally, it bears mentioning that I don't think I've ever seen the Queen E so full and animated with buzzy energy pre- and post-show; granted, several audience members clearly thought they were at a rock concert rather than a dance show (maybe mistaking The Holy Body Tattoo as Godspeed You's opening band). There were a lot of people who kept getting up and down from their seats and much general wandering around during the performance; it was mildly distracting, but nothing this total--and totally captivating--work of art couldn't exorcise with one crashing guitar chord, or nine crashing bodies.


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