A monumental undertaking

In conversation with the show’s creators and choreographers Dana Gingras and Noam Gagnon alongside original cast member and 2016 rehearsal director Sarah Williams. 

Jun 2, 2016 | BY: Jennifer Perras

After a 10-year hiatus, Vancouver’s explosive contemporary dance company The Holy Body Tattoo return to the world-tour circuit, reuniting with Montréal’s post-rock legends Godspeed You! Black Emperor to bring their epic collaboration, monumental to Toronto. Part of a cross-Canada and international tour with original music performed live, this is the must-see dance show of the year. We sat down with the show’s creators and choreographers Dana Gingras and Noam Gagnon alongside original cast member and 2016 rehearsal director Sarah Williams. 

JP: Noam and Dana, how did you meet? What drew you to collaborate to form The Holy Body Tattoo? 

DG: We met at an audition for the dance company EDAM in 1997. Immediately, Noam and I became inseparable. We were known as the “terrible twins” and had a serious reputation for reckless abandon and irreverence in the face of what was going on around us. Total enfants terribles… 

For whatever reason, we both felt a huge need to fiercely and violently push our bodies and selves in a way few people, or the culture around us, could tolerate. Our collaboration really came out of this hunger we shared to make work that would push us beyond any limit we thought we had… and we definitely got what we were looking for! 

As a result, we both reached some serious breaking points, physically, artistically and emotionally. Thankfully, I see now that getting to the other side of that made me saner. 

NG: We shared the same vision, same work ethic, same values to break the rules and push boundaries and create a physical language that met our insatiable desire to push ourselves to the limits.


Photo by Yannick Grandmont.

JP: Could you tell us about the original production of monumental? Why the decision to remount the show a decade later? 

NG: We both love Robert Longo’s Men in the Cities and this inspired the concept that became monumental. I believe the work is even more relevant today, so that factored into our decision to remount it. Cathy Levy from Canada’s National Arts Centre was one of the first to endorse this project in the beginning, and it has taken years of preparation (with very fervent believers in the work like David Sefton of the Adelaide Festival and our producer Sarah Rogers for example) to get this monumental work rolling again. 

DG: The original production of monumental began as a piece we created in 1993 called White Riot (named after the song by The Clash) for seven dancers including Noam and myself. We realized there was a bigger idea there and shelved it until we had more resources and the ability to execute it properly. 

We restarted it again in 2003 as monumental — the same year that Godspeed You! Black Emperor went on an indefinite hiatus. Because of this, we never entertained the idea that we could do the piece with the band playing live. 

By 2010 the band was back together and this opened up the possibility that we could remount the show with live music. Getting from that point to the version of the show currently touring (Vancouver’s PuSh Festival, Adelaide Festival, Luminato Festival and more) took almost five years of hard work and logistics. 

JP: What has it been like, coming back to monumental after 10 years? 

NG: Itʼs been “monumental” for me but with a BIG "M" this time! 

DG: Information and technology have evolved massively since the piece premiered in 2005, and the way these things are currently shaping the human condition makes the work incredibly timely. Living in the post-consumer internet era, the psychological implications of privileging a consumerist agenda clashing with the individual’s aspirations for psychological, social and spiritual fulfillment unfortunately seem even more prescient today than they did when we originally created the piece. 

I have always been interested in making choreography that looks at how we might test, express and enhance our human experience in a culture that is increasingly mediated by technology. 

It is essential for me to make dance that makes the body present and brings focus back to the physical, as the body’s ever more complicated relationship with technology keeps reducing the body’s presence in the real.

JP: What about you, Sarah? Could you tell us about your role with the production? 

SW: Ten years ago, Dana and Noam invited me to dance in the original production. I joined the cast during the last part of the creation process and performed in every show. This time, they asked me if I would direct the remount of the work and be the rehearsal director. Remounting monumental was a “monumental” task because there was a new cast and that meant teaching nine different parts. But by physically relearning a good portion of the work, I was able to transmit the choreography to the dancers. And, luckily, an original cast member gave me her movement notes from one of the first versions of the work. 

I’m excited to be a part of this version of monumental. The content is just as relevant today as it was 10 years ago, perhaps even more so. Also, I like the idea of introducing contemporary dance to Godspeed You! Black Emperor audiences and vice versa. 

JP: Do you approach the piece differently as a dancer versus a rehearsal director? 

SW: Yes, the approach is very different for the two roles. As a dancer, I was responsible for the through-line and interpretation of my own role in the piece. As the rehearsal director, I need to keep track of the choreography for each of the nine dancers and make sure their interpretation, movement quality and nuances are in line with the direction of the work. I want each dancer to reach their maximum potential. I also look at all other elements in the piece and offer my opinion and observations to Noam and Dana. 

JP: As you mentioned, Dana, monumental was initially performed to a recorded track. Ten years later, it is being performed with a live band. Can you talk about this collaboration with Godspeed You! Black Emperor? 

DG: The original version of monumental used a lot of the band’s first album — f#a#∞ plus some other sourced music and original electronic sections that were not by Godspeed. For this new production, we wanted to make the most of the band performing live so we re-scored the work. The band was very open to letting us suggest a kind of map that respected the original arcs of the choreography and from there we worked out tempo, duration and transitions in rehearsal. The way we rehearse choreography is very different from the way the band normally practices, so it was interesting to bring these two ecosystems together. 

For this current version we kept some of the original songs from f#a#∞, a few of which the band haven’t played live for a long time. We also added some parts from Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress (their recording from 2015) and some material they haven’t recorded yet but have been playing live on recent tours. They also worked out a couple of drumming sections that are original for monumental

Each time we get back together, rehearse and perform the work there are subtle developments between the music and choreography making the process very alive and dynamic. 

JP: Sarah, what does performing with a live band mean for the dancers? 

SW: As a dancer, performing monumental to live music is exciting and a privilege. It was wonderful to dance to the recorded soundtrack, but there is nothing comparable to performing with a live band. It adds another eight people to the ephemeral element of the performance. Although the dancers have set choreography and the music is composed, all of the performers are individuals so there will always be a uniqueness and humanity in each performance. Having a live band means the dancers have to listen and cannot presume the music will sound exactly the same as the last time. This enriches the connection between music and movement. 



Photo by Yannick Grandmont.

JP: What are the demands of the show on the performers? 

SW: monumental is a difficult piece. It takes intense focus for the complete duration of the performance. Dancers are trained to move through space and stay connected to the floor beneath them, but this work is performed on plinths so they need to apply these same ideas but up off the floor and within very confined dimensions. It’s also a work that is very much about a group identity, yet the dancers are isolated on their own individual boxes. 

JP: What does it mean to perform monumental in a raw, industrial space like the Hearn? How might the environment contribute to the ethos of the piece? 

DG: It is a rare opportunity to show the piece in a setting that deserves the work. The Hearn is a liminal space, outside of the city's core, the kind of space that you rarely see dance in. It is the kind of environment that, since the beginning of my career, has been an inspiration to make from, and a place that in itself has its own power. With its post-apocalyptic cinematic ambience, it directly speaks to the content of monumental and to the dark territories that Godspeed You! Black Emperor embrace in their compositions. 

JP: What do you hope the audience takes away with them when they see the show? 

DG: That’s not for me to decide. I hope that they are shaken. 

NG: A powerful, visceral experience that I hope they’ll never forget. 

monumental runs June 14–15 at the Hearn Generating Station. Tickets start at $29. Choreography by Dana Gingras and Noam Gagnan with live music by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. 

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