Thursday, March 23, 2017

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 31

Earlier this morning Justine, Alexa and I gathered at The Dance Centre for our first group interview in a while. Our interviewee was Noam Gagnon and even before the conversation had officially begun he'd managed to tell us about two figures in the Canadian dance world whom, somewhat surprisingly, he had slept with. Then, when Alexa explained that we might use some of his gestures from the interview as part of a physical score Noam deliberately began pinching his nipples, rubbing his crotch and grabbing his ass. But it was the far more subtle gesture of Noam rubbing one arm with the hand of another while talking animatedly that I was most drawn to; he repeated it multiple times over the course of our interview and afterwards he explained that it was his gauge for telling the truth. If he could feel goose bumps on his arm then he knew he was being authentic; no bumps meant he was bullshitting. And there was certainly a lot of history for Noam to test his claims against.

As Noam mentioned, he started dancing relatively late, at the age of 19. Following a degree in visual art, which included a lot of performance-based and improvisation work, he appeared in a friend's dance recital and got hooked on movement. With no formal training, and at the time also speaking no English, he subsequently applied to Concordia University's Contemporary Dance Department, which uniquely focuses as much on choreographic process and creation/composition classes as it does on technique. Noam was accepted and there he studied with Elizabeth Langley, Michael Montanaro, Silvy Panet-Raymond, Jo Leslie, Martha Carter, and Andrew Harding, among others. In 1987, following the completion of his dance degree, Noam came west to tree plant; he said the experience was awful, but that it was while on a break in Vancouver between contracts that he saw an ad for auditions at EDAM, which was then still being co-directed (at this point by Peter Bingham, Lola McLaughlin, Jennifer Mascall, and Peter Ryan). Noam was accepted into the company, as was Dana Gingras, his future collaborator-in-crime at The Holy Body Tattoo (HBT). Noam spent two years at EDAM before relocating once again, this time to Ottawa to dance for Peter Boneham at Le groupe de la place royale. (Interesting side fact we learned from Justine: she took classes with Noam at Le groupe as a young high school dancer in Ottawa.)

Part of what attracted Noam to Le groupe was Boneham's desire to have him choreograph in addition to dance. And so alongside appearing in works by Boneham, Louise Bédard, Sylvain Émard, Ginette Laurin, Davida Monk, and Yvonne Coutts, among others, while at Le groupe Noam also came into his own as a choreographer. Already at EDAM he and Gingras were building a unique aesthetic together (to the point that Noam, with chagrin, admitted they were often openly disdainful of the work other choreographers were setting on them). Thus, Noam convinced Boneham to let Gingras be part of his last creation process at Le groupe, which became the piece L'Orage (1991). A year later the duo was back in Vancouver, had secured a 3000-square foot studio space (whose long and narrow L-shape configuration, according to Noam, accounted for the look of a lot of early HBT works), and had founded their company, which until 1999 included the composer Jean-Yves Thériault. For the next 16 years Noam and Gingras poured their bodies and souls into creating now legendary works like Poetry & Apocalypse (1994), our brief eternity (1996), Circa (2000), and Monumental (2005). HBT was known as much for their endless touring and inventive self-promotion as they were for the extreme physicality of the movement and their cross-disciplinary collaborations with music and film. But Noam revealed that he and Gingras were largely flying by the seats of their pants and creating opportunities for themselves the only way they knew how, which was spontaneously and without fear of the consequences (whether it be throwing all their money at a photoshoot and press kit, or maxing out a credit card for ten minutes at On the Boards in Seattle, or pretending to be producers in order to get meetings with European presenters). As Noam recalled that time, it all came from a boundless excitement and, in his words, a "thirst" to make the work, and to see where that work would take them.

Indeed, it took them all around the world, including Glasgow, where Noam recounted the horror of blanking completely on the choreography of our brief eternity during one performance and almost quitting dance as a result; and Sydney, Australia, where he and Susan Elliott both caught a bug on the plane and spent five days throwing up during rehearsal, only to power through their scheduled shows (also of our brief eternity) through sheer strength of will. (Interesting side fact number two: this is our third vomiting story so far in this project.) However, there came a point when Noam tired of life on the road, and where he and Gingras wished to move in different directions. And so in 2006 Noam formed Vision Impure as a platform to create solo work for himself, as well as to collaborate with other artists and choreographers, including the late Nigel Charnock (also a big influence on Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg) and Daniel Léveillé. (Around the same time, having practiced and taught Pilates for thirty years, he also established his Beyond Pilates Studio in the West End, knowing, as he said, there would come a point where he would have to retire from dance, but also wanting to keep himself healthy while still performing.)

Now after 10+ years making more intimate and conceptual-style works, Noam says he finds himself craving the opportunity to create larger-scale works for a bigger stage. But he's also tired of having to explain himself to presenters and granting agencies. As he put it, there remains within him a lot of thirst to explore and discover; but he doesn't have a lot of patience anymore for the institutional bullshit.

And certainly no one in this community is going to fault Noam, after the career he's had, for saying so. I just wish those in a position to do so would answer his call for change.


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